Rick Lavoie

Never Say, "It's Only a Dance": Reflections on Middle School

September 2003

I conduct a workshop for parents and teachers of students in Middle School entitled, "Never say, "It's Only a Dance"". The title has its genesis in an anecdote that I share at the beginning of the seminar:

Sally - an eight grader - is standing before the full-length mirror in her bedroom critically admiring herself and her blue dress. On her bed are seven other dresses that are in contention to be worn on this special night.

It is the late afternoon on the Friday after Thanksgiving and Sally is dressing for the 8th Grade Thanksgiving Harvest Dance at her middle school. She has anticipated this event ever since she watched her older cousin conduct the similar ritual four years ago prior to her Harvest Dance. Sally's preparations have occupied most of her waking hours for the past several weeks. Mind numbing effort went into the selection of the dress, hairstyle and jewelry that she would wear on this evening of evenings.

Dozens of phone calls between and among her friends have been part of the ritual over the past weeks as critical decisions were made regarding how and when they would make their arrival at the dance. In Sally's mind this event was - quite possibly - the most important and significant event in the history of humankind.

As she enters the final stage of her primping, her Dad walks by her bedroom. Seeing her posing before the mirror, he stops and innocently asks, "Why are you so dressed up, Honey? You look terrific."

"It's the Dance, Dad. Tonight's the Dance. Jenny's Mom is picking me up at 7:30."

"What? Tonight? I knew you were going to a Dance this weekend, but I thought the dance was tomorrow night. The Dances are always on Saturdays. Are you sure it's tonight?" Dad stammers.

"OF COURSE IT'S TONIGHT," Sally answers impatiently. "The Thanksgiving Dance is always the day after Thanksgiving!"

"Oh, Sally, I'm sorry. I had no idea that the Dance was tonight. Grandma and Grandpa are going to Europe next week and - as you know - they always like to get together with the family before they take a big trip. They are coming here for dinner tonight…along with all your cousins. You have to be there. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that you can't go to the Dance."


"Honey....it's only a dance...there will be plenty of other dances."

With that final statement, Dad confirms to Sally that he is indeed the buffoon that she thinks he is turning into! He has demonstrated that he has no grasp of her "reality" and has unintentionally committed the unpardonable crime of "dissing" (dismissing!) her and her feelings.

Dad has forgotten the fundamental tenet in the development of the middle schooler:

MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS ARE MANAGED BY THE MOMENT...they have no past....no future....the event or incident that is currently occurring in her life AT THAT MOMENT is the most important occurrence since time began. When a middle schooler says, "Becky is mad at me and is not going to invite me to her pool party...my life is over!!!"…she means it.

It is critically important that , as adults, we understand this basic tenet of child development. It explains and clarifies many of the puzzling behaviors that we see from middle schoolers. The anxieties, over reactions, fears and tantrums become more understandable when we recognize that their chronic "present orientation and fixation" make it impossible for them to establish an adult-like perspective on the events in their daily lives. Dad knows that "there will be other dances"....Sally's perspective is that the Annual 8th Grade Harvest Dance hold equal status with the American Civil War, the invention of movable type and the discovery of the New World!

Perhaps Sally should be required to attend the dinner with her grandparents. But Dad should have been far gentler and empathetic in delivering that news to her. Perhaps a compromise (stay for the appetizer course and then arrive a bit late for the Dance) could have been negotiated.

I know a lot about Middle School kids. We raised three kids through that minefield and I have worked with middle schoolers for over thirty years. I have read volumes about this intriguing life stage and have attended countless related courses, seminars and workshops over the years.

However, some of the most interesting insights that I have gained about preadolescents have not come from the fields of education or psychology. I have long been intrigued by the mountains of middle school research conducted in the fields of ADVERTISING and MARKETING.

Consider. It is the goal of advertisers to analyze the interests and affinities of middle schoolers in order to design and promote products for this subgroup of customers. Toy companies, clothing firms and the entertainment industry are constantly monitoring preadolescents in order to determine the most effective ways that they can sell their wares to this age group. As educators and parents, we would be well advised to become aware of this research as it analyzes the habits, interests and concerns of middle schoolers. Advertising - like Teaching - focuses on MOTIVATION!!!

Quite predictably, this research finds significant differences between the interests of boys and those of girls.

Boys at this age are extraordinarily interested in competence and skill development. They want to be "really good at something". This explains their near obsession with mastering video games or sports skills. This mastery provides much-needed power and independence.

Boys also are intrigued by any battle between "good and evil". They are generally view the combatants as "all bad" or "all good" and have little tolerance for ambiguity. Movies (Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) and popular products (GI Joe, etc.) reflect this simplistic view of life.

Middle school boys are, frankly, quite "gross". Their fascination with bodily functions reflects their desire to have an interest that is puzzling to their younger siblings...and repulsive to their older sibs and the adults in their lives. Advertisers recognize that - if it's gross - it sells( Ren & Stimpy, Garbage Pail Kids, etc.)

At this age, boys can be quite silly and may find side splittring humor in pranks, jokes and stunts that adults find mindless. This is a natural aspect of their development and should be understood and tolerated by the adults in their lives. In the words of humorist Roy Blount, Jr.:

"When you look back on your childhood, you come to realize that your most enjoyable activities were ones wherein - if an adult were to come by when you were doing it - the adult would say, 'What in world are doing THAT for?'"

Another significant interest of middle school boys is bravery. The preadolescent boy may seek out opportunities to demonstrate his courage by taking risks or accepting dares. The worst reputation that a boy can acquire is that of a "chicken".

Interestingly, boys at this age are also interested in love and affection. As they prepare to explore affection with the opposite sex, they may look for ways to give or receive affection from others in their lives.

The interests of girls are significantly different. Candy necklaces and kiddie cosmetics demonstrate their budding interest in beauty. They enjoy exploring art and crafts and may spend endless hours drawing, sketching and doodling.

Girls begin demonstrating maternal instincts during preadolescence as demonstrated by their desire to care for and nurture their friends, pets and others. The Cabbage Patch phenomenon of the 1990's is a good example of this.

Girls, like boys, can also be quite silly at this age and may engage in activities and conversations which may seem mindless and unduly time consuming. The ritual of "you hang up first....no YOU hang up first..." at the end of a phone call can occupy countless "wasted minutes". Mastering and competence are also of significant interest to girls.

It is important to consider these unique needs as we deal with kids at this difficult and often awkward stage. Middle schoolers have little power of control over their lives. They are not allowed to choose their homes, their schools, their activities or even their names (hence the obsession with developing nicknames!). Provide them with empowering opportunities to exercise control by making choices and having options ("We are going to study the Civil War next month. What would you like to learn about he War Between the States?").

In summary this marketing research tells us that middle school kids will respond well to activities that allow them to feel:

  • smart
  • powerful
  • popular
  • skilled
  • in control
  • connected

They will respond negatively to activities that make them feel:

  • dumb
  • controlled
  • rejected
  • incompetent
  • inferior
  • patronized
  • isolated

When our daughter was thirteen, I remember scanning her room one evening. On her nightstand was a dog-eared copy of Glamour magazine, a tube of lipstick she had purloined from her Mom, a Play-doh sculpture of a horse, two Pez dispensers and a cherished and frayed hand puppet which she had loved since she was three years old. This collection was mute evidence of the confusing, perplexing, frustrating and wonderful stage of preadolescence! One foot in adolescence, while the other foot is firmly planted in childhood.

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, "Parenting is like being pecked to death by a duck." I don't know who wrote this..but I'll bet it was written by the parent of a middle schooler!