Middle School Matters with Phyllis Fagell
Welcome to on boys. Real talk about parenting teaching Eh reaching tomorrow's men where your co host Jennifer L. W. think of building boys dot net and Janet Alison of Boys Alive Alive Dot Com. This episode is brought to you by strike club a line of acne fighting skin care products for boys no need for complicated complicated skin care. Regimen Strike Club makes it simple. All your son has to do is rinse his face and body with everywhere wash when when he showers. Trist right club today. GO TO STRIKE CLUB DOT COM and use the discount code on boys to save ten ten percent that Strike Club Dot COM S. T. R. Y.. K. E. Club Dot com and the discount code is on boys voice. Middle School Phillips. Fatal says is a stew of simmering during warm owns shifting relationships and increased expectations. It is also a time of massive confusion and overwhelm home both for middle school boys and their parents. Today we are talking with Phyllis Fagel parent counselor and author third of Middle. School matters the ten key skills. Kids need to thrive in middle school and Beyond and how parents can help welcome. Welcome Phyllis thanks for having me today. We should mention that you are not just an author. You are not just a school counselor. You are in the trenches with the rest of US parenting teens and a middle schooler. I believe yet I'm on my middle school number three. He's my last to go through. He's in sixth grade now. So does it get easier. I think third children in general are easier because they have to go through through a gentler way they just sort of know that everyone is tired and they tend to be more easy going. I could have just gotten lucky. He but he seems to be a pretty chill middle score. I think that third and fourth children might be a little easier partly because we have lowered our expectations -tations dramatically. You know you know a lot more now about what is reasonable to expect from a middle school boy than you did. When you started this journey journey at one hundred percent true so middle school boys one of the most fascinating things to me as a pair of Boyce voice has been the insight into what middle school boys are really thinking about and how I perceived middle school boys say when I was in seventh grade? You work with a lot of boys. I know you facilitate boys group so share with us. What have you learned what is on the minds of middle school boys? I think the misconception about middle school boys. That's most prevalent is that they're really immature that their ears they're not interested in unloading the psychological burdens that they're grappling with and that they had here and enjoy adhering to a lot out of the gender stereotypes that we hold about boys and one thing. That's calm clear over the years particularly through the boys group which has been a safe space for them To admit what they're really thinking about and what they really care about is bad. Boys very much wanted to connect with their friends. They very much want you have meaningful bonds. Where they can confide in their friends and know that they can trust their friends they really want to be able to be their authentic selves in? That might mean they really like school and they really don't like sports courts. I think another misconception is that they don't worry about things like body image. What I've found over the years and I think social media is in part responsible responsible for this is that boys are getting subjected to all of these unrealistic images about who they should be in what they should look like and I'm hearing more from boys about body and security? I think that whole body image issue is so tough for boys in middle school because they're such a drastic range. I've gone to middle school basketball ballgames and some of those kids are shaving and have full mustaches. And then there was like my kid at that point in time who still looked like he was in third great but he was actually in seventh grade. Yeah then what makes it even harder is. You're suddenly in a new developmental phase where you're acutely aware of exactly how you stock doc up to everybody around you so a year earlier you might not have cared that you are half the height of the kid standing next to you on the bleachers during the chorus concert but suddenly all you can think about is what if I never grow. What if I'm the shortest person on the planet for the rest of my life and that matters in a way that it didn't matter before And and you are very aware of other people and you're starting to help other people like you and when all the images you see are of these very attractive attractive very mature men. That's tough yeah and then on top of all of that. They're starting to get interested in romantic relationships chips. So they're more aware of how they stack up to their peers. In terms of their level of attractiveness to whatever gender they happened to be attracted to but that also so come into play at this age. And how do we as parents support them. We can reassure you're gonNA grow you. Will you know oh you will. By the time you graduate from high school you will probably be shaving but as you say in the meantime so I think that very well meaning instinct is to reassure them that their time will come and that they will become taller and that this is a short-lived phenomenon and that they're great and perfect just the way they are but that invalidates where they're coming from and so more effective approach for helping them feel better is to say. I felt like the shortest kid and the clash. That would bother me too and I can understand why this is troublesome for you and then tell them perhaps. There's a story story of someone else in the family. He was a late bloomer. Who started out really short you now you know Ankle Bob is six four but also reassuring them that whatever or they are? We'll be good enough and that's really what they're looking for. Not for you so much to say you're going to be this high or that hike but just to let them know especially at an age when they're forming their identity. I'm trying to figure out if they're good enough to really reassure them that they're perfect just as they are that. Am I good enough question. You write in. Your book is a AAC core question for all middle schoolers boys and girls. But I think it's something that's really important for us as parents and educators grandparents to to keep in mind that these kids are looking all around them for reassurance. Basically that they're okay. Yes and with boys the way they tried to you get that reassurance can sometimes seem Veer toward the obnoxious. So they might yell something out. That's an appropriate. They might push someone together right. Hey that's been. They might use humor in ways that others think are rude and so we have to also remember that while they're trying to figure out if they're good enough and they're doing everything they can to make sure they're good enough and funny enough and well like you're not they also are lacking and skills and we have to cut them a lot of slack as they are developing those skills else we have to dig into this obnoxious part. Having lived with four boys I am acutely familiar with what you're talking about and you wrote a few things in in your book that just cracked me up. In one sentence you wrote a mature eighth grade. Boy May baffle his parents by sticking his head in a toilet for fun on social media And I was sitting in a public place that I just burst out laughing because yes boy mobs especially this does not make sense to you us. How break this down help explain it and how do we know like should I worry about this? Should I let this happen. How do respond so I completely understand that as a boy mom myself they are capable of doing things that are battling one of the other stories I share in? The book is about a kid. Kid who four or five for shock value started exchanging pictures with a friend on on his same sports team of his private parts parts and they were just moving around. It wasn't sexual. It was just silly and then the mom was spot checking his own team across a bunch of pictures of her kids kids private parts and some other kids private parts and was like what is best. She just really couldn't make heads or tails of that but felt he had gone too far. Lauren knew that there was some teaching that had to happen. Related to to what they were doing to expose themselves in that way and permanent and all of that so it's impossible for us as adults who are rational logical thinkers. Choose to view something like most of the time or we try. We like to think of ourselves that way. It's hard for us to see something like that and make sense of it. But if you're a bad boy and you think it's really hilarious. Then you're going to want to do more of it. You might even want to send it to like some other people so other people can appreciate how funny you are. Yeah because it's really funny. No I just shared this story the other day with a group I was talking to my son. And although maybe don't turn me in Tom for sharing this story other than to your podcast listeners. So he came home and he said I want to tell you something but I'm afraid that if I tell you then you you will never get me a phone and I said well. I'm never getting your phone anyway. So you may as well tell me this story and he said well. Here's what my what happened between a couple of my friends. And he shared this story of it with a story about an hour and a girl and the boy had asked the girl to send him a picture. Sure without her shirt on and they kind of knew better and I guess they decided to include the keeney top so it wasn't quite as scandalous uh-huh and they loved each other. 'cause they're sixth graders and it's true love so she sent the picture and then they thought it would be really funny. The the two of them together totally consensual totally in good fun. Thought it would be really funny to doctor the picture and give her a porn star beads. Oh and yeah. Yeah and so when they did that then they were even more amused by their extreme creativity and it was hilarious and because it was hilarious area decided to send it to the forty five students boys and girls in their shared kept. Yeah Oh and it actually gets worse believe it or not but the way it gets worse I think says so much about boys and how they love hard and they care hurt and they mean well and they're just making some blenders along the way. So what next is the kids in this text. Groups didn't give them the reaction that they wanted there. Is this kind of stunned silence. Yes you know sort of a dude. What are you thinking? At which point the girl was no longer happy with the decision and the boy was feeling bad that she wasn't feeling good about it so he did the most logical rational reasonable caring loving thing he could possibly do which was to host a doctor picture of himself. Oh boy oh it makes sense in like Sandler and boy world right right. It made a lot of sense to him and it was it was loving. It was really caring. And he's so bad that she was embarrassed and he didn't want her to feel alone so he did the same thing and of course his gesture was met with the exact same response as hers. Only at this point I think a mother who was monitoring somebody somebody in that group chops tax. Shut the thing down and that was the end of it but what I love about that story that it reveals so much about boys at this age you know. Are they love hard. They care her they mean well they WANNA be funny. They wanted he like they want to connect to and impress but they don't really have that skill L. set to pull it off in a way that doesn't sometimes occasionally result in humiliation and embarrassment and odd shock on the part of the parents right that that story also reveals to me why parenting these children is so challenging because when we put our lens on that without talking to the children we can get a whole different narrative out of that and if we start reacting based on that then we create eight misunderstanding and distance in anger and that's problematic and then the other thing that makes me think about in your book you used the term hinge generation a hinge generation to describe this generation of boys. And I sort of feel like they're caught between the social norms. That used to say something were acceptable. This whole Uber Masculine. I slept with her. You Hey did you see on that one. And we're we're going we're increasingly. Were saying that's not cool and yet boys are leaving in this here now. This is a lot unpack unpack. It really is and I don't think we give a space to talk about those issues and they don't really know how to interpret these really complex adult ideas about consent and harassment. They have very concrete questions you know. How many times can you ask a girl out before it's Ross? Meant can you look at a girl. The wrong way you know in another kid might say well it depends on how you're looking at them and where you're looking at them and they're really trying to make sense of all of this and figure it out and they don't know it's not okay we to date someone who's a year younger is that okay and they don't WanNa get in trouble and they also are internalizing some of these messages and I hate the phrase toxic masculinity because at especially for twin boys because at an age when they're really forming their identity they're being bombarded with these with this negative terminology airman -nology and language is really powerful and so I think as parents the best thing we can do to combat those types of messages is to really not shame them when they make the kinds of mistakes. We're talking about with that text group chain but to really validate you know. I can see why you made that choice and I know it came from a good place and then switch to the budget. But here's why it's not a great idea and then to talk about what they can do to either make it right or to behave differently going down the road and what other options they might have had in that moment and really helping them think critically about what they're doing so that when they do make those kinds of errors it's a one time error and and not the start of a mass section campaign again will be right back after this message talking talking about your son and his desire for autonomy balancing that with his ability to be independent looking looking for safe effective acne treatment for your son try. Strike Club developed by a pediatric dermatologists. Strike Club is a line of face. Wash Body Wash and blemish control designed specifically for boys created with clean ingredients rated safe by the environmental dental working group. Strike Cloud is simple safe and affordable. Check it out. Go to strike. Club DOT COM S. T. R. Y.. I K. E. Club Dot com and use our discount code on boys to save ten percent. So along those lines phyllis I you have a mom who is struggling with her middle school boy and the struggle is an. It's it's similar because it's like they want their autonomy. They want to be able to do these things so he's in eighth grade. He's has some S. He's got some learning challenges but he's saying to his parents. I want to do this. I got this. I want to be in charge of my school and doing my homework work. And all of that. And it's like yea let's celebrate that and there is no framework there he's failing and and yet he's you know he's saying back off I want to have this independence but there isn't the skill set and ability yet to follow through on that desire and we want him to have that nurture that meanwhile he's failing three classes so oh you don't want to extinguish his desire for autonomy and you WanNa be conveying that you admire that quality and him and that you want him. I'm to be successful independently and I would turn it into a question and really showing some curiosity. I imagine it's not bad assigned assigned to get s and it's probably somewhat surprising because it sounds like you really thought you had it under control. What do you think isn't working for you? Let's think about some delusions going forward. That would help you be more successful from the parent and you can help with time management. You can help them decide if they wanna work near you at the kitchen table. Or if they want or if they can handle working upstairs you can help them figure out if maybe they have a phone on hand in there really being inefficient. I should've been don't realize how much time they're spending talking to friends instead of doing what they need to get done you can help them talk about when they are going to go in for extra help you can make sure they have a and uncluttered studies base and they have the equipment they need but when it comes to quality and the actual execution on the skills that teachers are trying to impart. I really discourage parents. From having with their kids I would really punt it back to the school and let them figure out what that child needs. In order to be successful they may come back and say he could use a tutor or some help executive functioning but I would really involve the school and almost be like an anthropologist or detective and try to find that are what what are the classes in which he's struggling and what's different about those classes. He's not feeling everything though. He is pulling off that independent in some classes. What's different a friend about those classes and start from that positive point? Start from those strengths and say I can see that you really have it together in this class. Obviously something different in these other courses sources. Let's try to figure this out together so you're not solving it for them. You're not telling them what you know. If you're dictating their choices you're done you'll end up in a game of tug of war. Yeah yeah well. Surprisingly one of those fs is his. Pe Class where he is clashing with his teacher her and Jen. I know this will sound familiar with my kid. It was the RT that are not right so so talk about this. This clash with boys and their teachers and these parents are really struggling. Because there's only one p. e. teacher and and the PE teacher is not open to having a conversation about the child's behavior in class. And you know it does remind me of the art teacher. That Jen's son had and there are these clashes of personalities and as adults else with our lands were sitting over on the sidelines going well. Everyone's different neum has to figure out how to make it work and yet again when you're a middle-school boy and you don't have the skill set yet to have those conversations with the teacher. What do you do when they're kind of locked in this battle? And how do you break the cycle of that clash. You know to be honest. It's part of why I wrote the book because I think that there's an empathy deficit on on the part of adults for boys. And yes. And there's this when there's this lack of a common language between parents and teachers to talk about the developmental phase and help boys be their best selves teachers and any other adults really coaches. Who are working with boys always can make? The mistake of thinking. Child is trying to be disrespectful or trying to be contrary or just for the heck of it and really nine times out of ten. There's something again you gotta put on that Scuba suit and go under this. Why what's different about that class? Josh is it that they think the teacher doesn't like them. And that's something that's very common with this as as well that child. They're already pretty bad. At accurately interpreting feedback they're already prone to reading negatively and to almost neutral expressions. I often will help teachers. You have to be really careful to make sure your tone and your expression and your language and your body. Language are all in alignment because as soon as there is a mismatch kids will sniff out that in authenticity and immediately conclude that you think poorly of them. So what I've done in the past and this is something that you could ask. That mother could ask the counselor at the school to do is to go and observe the class observed that kid in the class and report back what they see. Now I've done that and I've had situations where I've been able to report back to the child. You know. Help me understand what you're feeling because I'm not actually seeing any bias here you know the kid will say. I'm sure that this teacher hates me. They're always yelling at me either. Always punishing me and there are times when they're they're off base and when with that one particular child when I said help me understand she you were the girl in this case. She recalled that early in the semester. She had asked for an extra point on cast and the teacher had been irritated. And I'm sure. The teacher was irradiated by her. You know sort of braid grabbing for that extra point. But when I checked in with the teacher with the child's permission. The teacher had no memory of that incident and there was no hostility and the girl had inflated best to the point where it was getting in the way of her ability to interact and and function in the class. So the solution in that case was to build that relationship. They had a few lunches together. They had a conversation about how bad had not irreparably damaged that relationship. They ship so what I would be looking to do with that P. E. clashes number one to be observing the dynamic. And getting a sense. It could be that. It's a teacher with a really short fuse or low low frustration threshold and the child who really know how the push is about yours. So you're on the one hand working with your child to not push the buttons and maybe you'd get some information from the school on how they're doing that on the flip side. Maybe work with the teacher on helping them understand what the boys challenges is he trying to impress his friends. Does he feel like he's not as good at sports as his classmates and this is does he feel bad about his body and this is an uncomfortable space for him. Is there anything they can do to make this class more comfortable for him and then to also make sure about the feed-back that they're proceeding is accurate and build the relationship between the teacher and the student. We've previously talked a lot about the man box on this podcast about these expectations. That just keep our boys and men sort of constricted these ideas of what they should be in what they should not be. You have done on an interesting activity with your boys group to help boys Russell with all of this. Can you describe that in how parents might be able to do something similar with their guys at home. Yeah sure so. The man box activity for any of your listeners. Who Don't know what it is and you can adopted based on the needs of your group but what I did is at I Print it out. Probably a couple of hundred adjectives and they were everything from tender to compassionate. Too Strong and vicious Athletics Forty intellectual and on and on and and then I asked the boys to tell me whether or not I wasn't looking for them to think about a deeply. I wanted their knee jerk reaction whether or not. They thought that it was a word that society would consider to be attributable to a quote unquote real man. And if it could be something something that I followed you that a quote unquote real man possess. It could go in the mailbox and if it couldn't then it stayed outside the box and then what I had Kim do is I read off a nother list of adjectives and I asked them to write down one that they felt described them and then we talked talked about the disconnect between the way they describe themselves and the things that they valued in their own life versus what society was telling them to value and what society was telling them that they should be just to really point out this vast divide between what they wanted to be and true they really were and the mass really that they had to wear in order to walk through. The you know at through the world is a boy and as a corollary Larry. I really interesting experiment that I later and from the GECKO and this is such a typical middle school boy thing to from the ghetto from the moment they first met. They really wanted not to do it because they felt like. If the girls had a girl's group than they should have a boy you know at first. It wasn't really much because they wanted to challenge you know since island. They were just aggravated. That there was a girl group but no boys group and they felt boys were treated unfairly to and boys had stuff that they had to worry about you and that we should be giving equal attention attention to my boys had to worry about and of course they were right. They just weren't not yet putting as much emphasis on their own. Needs as I felt that they should so when they asked asked to meet with a girl's group so they could convince the girl that their burden was equally heavy. I said I love the idea. But we're GONNA wait. I knew it would be combatted and unproductive if we did it at that point. I want them to work on themselves. I said at some point I will bring you together. When you're ready so periodically they would ask whether it was time to meet with the girls and they kept asking me what the girls thought about the fact that they were having this voice group and what the girls were saying about the boys groups and if it bothered the girls that there was a boy script finally I I had to tell them the truth like the girls are not thinking about you at all? Aw at all and part of that is a reflection of where we are in society. You know for a much longer time. We've given girls a space and a way to think about what they're confronting and what about sexism and the glass ceiling all of those things and that title nine girls have a language and they're having either time sharing those thoughts and feelings appears anyway so they they were so far along they were working on advocacy and fundraising so you think for political campaigns. You know they were really not at all thinking about these boys. But what's interesting. Is that about eighteen months later. My boys were ready and and I brought them together with the girls group and we did not just the man box activity. We did the woman box activity and I asked them to again without thinking. Say whether the adjective belonged or the the quality belong characteristic belonged in the man box according to society or or blond in the women's box according to society I had them all answer at the same time and it was sorta based voice consensus where it was going to go. It was almost US near unanimous agreement on every single one and for the parts the boys and girls were in complete agreement for both so they collectively decided things like tender. Hindering Compassionate could go into the girls box only and things like strong and embiid could go into the boys only and what was really powerful about. This activity was They were able to see such clarity. That when you address one groups issues and the constraints that one group is grappling with then that WBAP benefits both benefits everybody. They were really on the same team and it and it was clear to both of them. At that point. It's such a concrete. Exercise is to which is great because kids this age. They're beginning to have abstract thoughts and be able to function on that but they're still really concrete in a lot of ways so when you can literally see that we put strong appear for boys but then over here is this girl who does shotput shotput and is awesome will clearly. She's strong so wait. Maybe these things that we've been taught aren't entirely accurate. It helps them see this in themselves and their friends and it also makes them feel a little manipulated by society. And if you really WANNA get a kid to have the courage courage to break outside of those constraints tell them that society is manipulating them at this for this age about really powerful motivator and so if they I feel like someone is telling them who they should be in what they should do then they are going to Bristle they are not going to like all of these adults being so directive with them about their choices behaviors and they're going to be more likely to actually act as their authentic selves. So Phyllis I asked in my voice alive facebook group. If anyone had questions for you they were very excited that we could bring this directly to you and questions was how to keep them safe from trying vaping and other substances that their friends might have so I recently learned about something called inoculation theory. It's a professor Josh Compton at Dartmouth College and what inoculation theory is. Is this idea that you can inoculate someone and against a behavior you don't want them to do in the same way you inoculate them against the virus and the way it works is and I'll use vaping in this case as an example. Although it's it's cool about this research is that if you do it with enough scenarios it will generalize and it will be able to apply. I'll give you a second example after so for vaping you so you might say to them when you are at school. There might be a time when there are kids. Who Want you to come with them in the bathroom? And you might want to do it because you really want to fit in with those friends and you don't really think aping is bad dangerous. It's it's basically just fruity flavors and it's not as bad as smoking but actually that the advertisers. I'm trying to convince you when in fact there is a lot of good science that says that it's just as addictive as smoking and it just either the various way it can harm you and you're not looking to use scare tactics. You have to make sure that you're giving them factual information but what you're doing is you're telling them what kind of situation they might face and you're giving them away to think it's through in multiple ways before they're in it so another example. Yeah go ahead and again. You're kind of using their desire to not be manipulated by the media by other people using that positive way. Yes here's another example. Let's take gossip. You might take to your kid. And by the way boys gossip as much as girls which is another nest that people have that only girls engaged in relational aggression. Boys can be pretty good at it too so you could say to them when someone tells you a really juicy piece of information information you are going to be tempted to share it because everyone likes to have the best story and it is fun to be the keeper of information but you know what even more satisfying to be known as a loyal and trustworthy friend to be the person that people come to when something really important and big is going on in their life. So you're framing these scenario than ways where you're acknowledging what they're going to have to be what they're up against that interference and interference can be all kinds. The things that could be wanting to fit in it could be jealousy. It could be anger. It could be anything so you're crying them to expect that interference and then giving them a counter hunter dialogue that they can retrieve in these moments where they're going to be tempted to do the wrong thing really wish I talked to you. Three kids ago Phyllis so phyllis I'm just curious how I work with a lot of parents and I just want to give them the support and love and mid reassurance and it's all gonna be okay and yet their future pacing. They're worried they're they're middle. Schooler isn't anything can get into college and they're going to end up in jail. And how do we reassure parents bring them back into the present with their kids kids even though it might feel kind of ugly in the present with out of control behavior with the kid who's sending pictures of his private privates do his friend experimenting with vaping other substances cursing at their parents. Not You. Yeah no not getting off devices when asked playing loud music. What are your words? I know that's a lot. But what are what are your words. There's of reassurance to these parents I would worry when your kids stops pushing back because when your kid arguing with you when your kids pushing your buttons than what they are doing is they think they're having a productive conversation with you. They're trying to figure out what mysterious thing is going on in your head. Yes they might eight rebel against it but they also very much care about your values and what you expect and hope for them and they also have big dreams and hopes for themselves and they two are frustrated when it's messy and things don't go as planned and I just remind parents that isn't the greatest gift to let them experiment and make mistakes. Estate can be there to help them recover and help them build that resilient so that when they're thirty and you're not by their side they know what they need you to pick up the pieces. They know how to make them and they know how to regulate their emotions I would as a parent just constantly look at it as building. What their way I were they talking back to the teacher? Why are arguing with me? What is it that they need? And how is there an alternative way that I can meet this need so that it's not quite as messy. And how can I give them a path back to being a good kid hit as quickly as possible and just be consistent and lobbing because. Shane is going to get you nowhere anyway. And if we maintain high expectations the the research shows that there are more likely to live up to our expectations but those expectations also have to be reasonable. And it's just a fact that parenting is kind of a messy and uneven path and kids have big growth spurt intellectually and emotionally and sometimes they take two steps back and the best we can do for them is to help them recover from those mistakes and move forward. If you have not picked up a copy of villas book yet. I highly recommend it. It is middle. School matters the ten key skills. Kids need to thrive in middle school and Beyond and and she's got a whole separate chapter in there specifically looking at boys so if that's your concern you skip right ahead to that one. But there's a lot of great stuff in here Bilas and if you are on twitter follow her on twitter. She shares need most hilarious anecdotes conversations with middle school. Kids Edit it reminds you of where their heads really are. Thank you though Phyllis. Where can people find you so I have a website which she's still a single dot com? I am on twitter. That's at a p Fagel and I- fairly regularly have a column in The Washington Post and the book of course the book. Of course. Yes you so much for being that person WHO's as we're recording in this. You are sitting in your Middle School Counseling Office for being on the scene every day. We all appreciate you doing that. And and helping these kids grow and also just sharing your wisdom with parents and other educators. Thank you thank you. Thank you for having me on. I I love this age group. Thanks for joining on boys. Real real talk about parenting teaching and reaching tomorrow's men.