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A son, his folks, and a new era

August 20, 2006 5:31 am

MY SON BEGINS middle school this week, and he says he's ready--even for the hour-earlier arrival of the school bus. As far as handling the rest of the adjustment--the academic and social aspects--I guess we'll see.

But I do share his confidence. If anybody can deal with this critical period in the growing-up experience, I think he can.

I believe he's ready not just because of the upbringing my wife and I have provided over the past 11 years, but because of the person he is turning out to be. In other words, we've handed him the ball, and he is already off and running with it.

Though he can exhibit the "contradictory behavior" that experts refer to among children in his age group, it is how that behavior is manifested among his classmates and peers that is of greater concern to me (and a lot of other parents). By the time they have reached middle school age, these kids have developed distinct lifestyles. They have different levels of knowledge about "things." And they've assembled varying estimates of their own self-worth, which has a lot to do with how well they will adjust.

Richard W. Riley, a former U.S. secretary of education in the Clinton administration, has put it this way: "The young people in our nation's middle schools are a wonderful handful, eager to define themselves in some individualized way and, at the same time, are anxious to be part of the group mentality that defines everything that is popular."

Talk about trying to be all things to all people. There are plenty of adults out there who have yet to find a middle ground in that tug-of-war.

Patti Kinney, a middle school teacher in Oregon and current president of the National Middle School Association, notes the unfortunate portrayal of young adolescents in the media as "rude, self-centered, and uncaring," and as being "brain dead, moody, or hormones on wheels."

But that, she says, reflects only the dark side of the rapid physical and emotional changes that occur as they test the limits of behavior and independence. "[F]or those reasons they can be contradictory at times--confused or confident, awkward or articulate, passive or passionate."

Experts point to a "vast majority" of young people who act responsibly, who don't engage in dangerous or destructive behavior, and who as a result hang below the media's radar. They are non-squeaky wheels who help keep their generation rolling along.

I expect that my son will have new and extensive reports from his classmates about the video games they are playing and the music they are listening to. (Are tales of drug and alcohol use soon to follow?)

Because we have told him again and again that he can talk to us about absolutely anything that's on his mind, he has been passing this information along, and also interrogates us about why he isn't familiar with some of the things everybody else does and how he feels left out.

The answer to that is pretty simple: As long as we can prevent him from trashing up his mind with nasty video games or song lyrics that have harmful sexual overtones or references to gratuitous violence, we are going to do just that. Besides, there are too many positive choices to make, whether its playing sports, playing his saxophone, reading, or enjoying any of the music and movies out there that are perfectly fine.

The harder part to explain has to do with "everybody else." Of course it isn't really everybody else, but merely the generalization an 11-year-old uses to make his point.

Some of what he hears may be empty bravado. But we can assume from what he's told us that plenty of kids his age can pretty much do, see, or hear anything they choose to. Maybe some have older siblings or extended-family members who have introduced them to this stuff, making it difficult for their parents to combat.

On the other hand, maybe their parents are the enablers--reconciling a laissez faire attitude with the belief that their kids will get this stuff elsewhere anyway. Are these the parents who bring their young kids along to see R-rated movies?

We've been selective about our son's exposure to music and movies, and video games are limited to the educational variety, or those that are otherwise good, clean fun. He got an iPod last Christmas and has loaded it up with his favorite songs. But I know the songs he's downloading, and he agrees to avoid anything labeled "explicit," though he continues to ask why.

Similar rules apply for any surfing he does on the Internet, with some help from parental controls. For now we seem to be on the same page with this, but I know he's going to want to test the limits, and we've got to be ready to extend them as he matures and shows he's ready.

I still keep the remote control close at hand whenever the television is on. Broadcasters love to espouse their good intentions on program content and timing, but they are hollow promises. The networks, for example, love to run graphic promos during NFL games showing violent and sexually oriented scenes from their prime-time programing. Certainly they know that kids are watching those games.

The pervasiveness of unseemly messages makes the "Just Say No" mantra as ridiculous as a beer train that brings a snowstorm. Tell a kid "No," and he is more likely to say "Why?" than "OK."

They are curious, smart, and more savvy than you might think.

As our son becomes more aware of--and enticed by--the bad influences swirling around him, we hope he'll put them in the proper perspective, given the values we've tried to instill in him. He'll always be encouraged to talk things over with us.

I know that my wife and I will continue to help guide him through the media maze because we are committed to that. Parents are their kids' gatekeepers, and those who ignore that role are copping out at their kids' expense.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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