Find Your Strength! (Then Work on the Weakness) by John Gifford, Head of Middle School
My eldest daughter, Adelaide, loves The Beatles. She loves them with a passion that is visceral, emotional and at times almost overwhelming. She describes Paul's voice as smooth and round while John’s voice is like a tin can. While I don’t exactly understand the tin can reference, I still think that she is onto something.
When she wears her red shirt emblazoned simply with “John, Paul, George & Ringo,” she’s lucky if the teachers (many born long after the break up in 1970) know what it means much less her 11-year-old classmates. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She thinks of them as “her thing” and takes some pride in having them all to herself. Just the other day, she said as a side note, “I get jealous when I hear that other people like them.” There is a need to be different inherent in her wish, a desire to be unique.
Number two, aka Olive, is burning through the Harry Potter books. She’s on the last one now and is planning to start from the beginning again as soon as she’s done. Olive, unlike her big sister, is desperate to share. She prattles on about the books nonstop and actively works to get her classmates hooked. Her relationship with Harry and his friends seems to improve when it is shared with others who are similarly smitten.
I see these opposing tendencies, and the spectrum that lay between them, in most middle school students. Neither perspective is inherently right nor wrong; they are just two ways of interacting with the world. Students who desire to be unique might have a better ability to make independent decisions. They might find more creative solutions to problems. On the flip side, they might struggle to be a team player and forge easy peer relationships.
Students who desire peer affirmation learn different ways to approach problems from being open to those interactions. They are likely to be more sophisticated in their social interactions. However, they also run the risk of being overly dependent on the approval of their peers and perhaps allowing other 12 year olds to help them make decisions. This is mostly fine but not always the best method.
So where does your child fall on this spectrum and what of it? My first advice for parents is to embrace their child’s particular tendencies!
There are benefits and challenges to each and every personality type. I'm reminded of the popular saying when Adelaide was in pre-Kindergarten, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
As educators and parents, our role is to help young people take advantage of what is beneficial in their natural approach while pushing them to experiment with the strategies that live outside of their comfort zone.
The “individualist” should be asked to collaborate and be open to different ways to solve problems. They can still revert to their own idea, but they should do so after testing it against other approaches. They should work to read others and their reactions while they work to collaborate. They need to maintain their confidence in their own ideas while not allowing it to turn into hubris.
The “collaborator” should be asked to work independently. They should have confidence that they understand the challenge at hand and don’t need to sneak peeks at what others are doing to confirm their approach to solve it. They should be pushed to take pride in their own unique approach. They should allow the time to take pleasure in their solution rather than immediately compare it to the decisions of others.
Vital work for young adolescence is to practice what works well while taking risks to try strategies that are uncomfortable and different. Young people rarely will do the latter unless we explain the value in doing so and then give them a shove in that direction.