A Rite of Passage
Transition years, when children move into a new school level, such as junior high, are both exhilarating and anxiety-producing. Faced with making new friends, managing more homework, or even learning how to handle a locker, even the most eager students may experience some anxiety. As parents, we worry too: Will she be successful? Will she make friends? Will she get her work done?
Before we think about how to help with these issues, let’s take a moment to consider a different question: how does she move through and get past this transition? You see, the change to a new school is not just a physical change of location or a set of increased expectations. It is truly a rite of passage, a critical step in the process of growing up. Your child has a psychological need that needs to be met through the transition. It's important that she comes out of this transition feeling older, more independent, and more accomplished. She has to feel that she’s making progress towards adulthood!
If we, as parents, do too much, this need for increased independence may be violated. However, if we offer too much freedom, the need for success at school may not be met.
So where’s the middle ground?
Choice Within Limits
Our best answer is choice within limits. As parents, we have to define the boundaries for our children. It’s also our role, however, to gradually expand those boundaries, offering as many choices as possible within them.
Let’s play this out with an example:
Amy is transitioning into junior high and her mom desperately wants her to be successful. She struggled to keep track of her assignments last year, and her mom is worried that this could happen again.
- Restrictive Option: Mom meets with Amy’s junior high teachers to make a plan. Amy’s last period teacher will sign off each day after her assignments are written down. The problem with this, however, is that Amy has not been included in this decision. She feels frustrated by the extra supervision, as well as feeling “different” from other kids who don’t have to do this. She quickly begins to resent this support.
- Permissive Option: Mom decides to let Amy start off the school year on her own and “see how it goes.” The problem here is that Amy has never conquered her homework management challenges on her own before, and she’s not ready to do that now. Amy is being set up to fail.
- Choice within Limits: The limit? Work must get done and turned in. Within this limit, however, the options are endless! Mom calls a family meeting and mentions how thrilled she is for Amy to be making the transition to junior high. She then spends some time asking Amy about what is exciting for her about the transition and what might be making her nervous.
She tells Amy that she’s excited and nervous too. She truly wants her daughter to succeed, and she’s nervous that assignments might get missed again this year. Since Amy’s getting older, Mom feels it’s very important for Amy to be a part of deciding how to make this year successful.
Mom writes “Ways to make sure homework is done and turned in” on a large blank sheet of paper. Mom, Dad, and Amy all contribute as many ideas as possible. No judgment is made on the ideas, which range from “I’ll write it down every day,” to “A teacher could sign your assignment notebook daily,” to “Mom could check in with the teacher every week to see how you are doing.” In the end, they generate a dozen different ideas together.
Next, Mom and Dad use their veto power. Mom decides to veto “I’ll write it down every day.” She explains to Amy that this was not something that worked last year, so she doesn’t feel comfortable trying this particular strategy again. She wants Amy to have more support than that for now.
Everyone discusses the remaining options' pros and cons. In the end, two choices are made: First, Amy would like to start off the year without having her teacher have to check on her every day, because that makes her feel singled out. She knows the teachers stay after school at least 20 minutes each day, so she decides that she’ll review her assignments with her mom, in the car, before they leave the parking lot each day. If anything isn’t written down, she can run back in for more details. Next, Amy also understands that if this doesn’t work, she might need more support. In that case, she might need a teacher to actually check her assignments daily, or a whole new solution may be needed.
A Sense of Ownership
At the end of this, Amy is likely to feel a real sense of ownership over the problem and the possible solution. Yet, if she’s not ready to handle the responsibility she’s taken on, her parents can use the same process to help her find another solution.
This ownership is what will enable Amy to move through this transition into the next phase of life, building her sense of control and independence. As parents, we have the opportunity to play an intentional, proactive role in our children's transitions, offering our children success as they face whatever comes next.