Setting Boundaries for Your Middle-Schoolers
About the Guest
Has parenting gotten harder since your child hit puberty? Psychologist Dr. Brenda Hunter and her daughter, education columnist Kristen Blair, talk about the challenges parents of tweens face. Most concerning, they relate, is the bombardment of the media and it's infringement on the life of the family and the life of their children. Hunter and Blair encourage parents to take back the territory they've lost by setting some healthy boundaries for their children.
Brenda HunterBrenda Hunter, PhD, is a psychologist and internationally published author. Educated at Wheaton College and Georgetown University, she has served on two presidential commissions and written numerous books, including Home by Choice, In the Company of Women, and The Power of Mother Love. She has appeared on NBC's Today Show (Weekend), Larry King Live, and Focus on the Family radio. Dr. Hunter lives and works as a psychotherapist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Kristen BlairKristen Blair is an education columnist and writer. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the Charlotte Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun, and Carolina Journal. Kristen has worked on family and educational policy at the national level for the federal government, a presidential commission, and Empower America. She and her husband Greg are the parents of two children, a tween and a middle school graduate. They live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Has parenting gotten harder since your child hit puberty?
Setting Boundaries for Your Middle-Schoolers
Bob: It was by Brenda Hunter—
Bob: —and it, I mean—
Dennis: Countercultural, revolutionary.
Bob: It was!
Dennis: And she joins us again on FamilyLife Today. [Laughter] Brenda, welcome back.
Brenda: It’s great to be back. I always like to come and talk to you two.
Dennis: I still remember—well, first of all, I want to introduce your daughter, who joins us, as well. Kristen Blair joins us on our broadcast, too. Welcome back.
Kristen: Thank you.
Dennis: You’ve been here before, as well.
Kristen: That’s right.
Dennis: You guys have taken on a subject here that I’m passionate about.
Dennis: You don’t know this, but I taught a sixth grade Sunday school class for 11 years. I felt like you do today that that group of young people are far more impressionable. There’s more impact being had on their lives for evil to damage them and to really set a course for their lives than most parents realize.
You’ve written to a book called From Santa to Sexting—subtitled Helping Your Child Safely Navigate Middle School and Shape the Choices that Last a Lifetime.
You two did a survey at McLean Bible Church in the Washington, D.C., area. What did you find?
Kristen: We actually did a focus group of parents of middle school children—just different walks of life, different racial backgrounds and family makeup. What we heard pretty consistently was that parents were quite overwhelmed with parenting children in this age group.
Brenda: The parents were quite distressed that morning. Even though they were trying hard to rear good children, they said, “You can’t control what your child hears at school.”
Bob: The world in which kids are moving from preadolescence into adolescence is a different world. As soon as I say it, I think, I remember in the ‘50s and the ‘60s when Elvis showed up. Everybody said, “It’s terrible.” Now, we sound like our parents at that point. So, I—
Dennis: But it is a different game today.
Bob: It is. I try to be as objective and go, “I don’t want to be naïve.” This is just—this is just a different culture.
Kristen: I agree. I would say one of the words that we heard consistently as we spoke to parents about kids in this age range was that they are being bombarded by media from various platforms. They are—many times during the day. We see that kids in this age range 11 to 14 are actually the heaviest media consumers of any children.
Bob: I’m just curious. Do you think media or peers are the most subversive and dangerous influence? I mean, if you could—you’ve got to monitor both, as a parent; but where’s the danger? Is it coming across the airwaves or across the modem, or is it the peer interaction; do you think?
Dennis: Or can you separate it?
Kristen: I think they both mix together, but I think that probably the biggest danger is the lack of awareness. One of the things that we heard consistently was, “It’s the child of the unaware parent who gets into trouble,” and that parents are having great difficulty, given all these different platforms, in monitoring their kids effectively in what they are consuming.
Brenda: We also heard from principals, and teachers, and social workers that parents today want to be buddies with their children. They’ve given up their roles as authority figures. This is not everybody, obviously, but many parents. That role reversal lives—particularly among single parents. I remember the principal of the largest middle school in Durham, North Carolina, telling us that—and that role reversal lives.
Now, I’m a psychologist. I know that if the child’s taking care of the parent, emotionally, you don’t have a good thing going on because nobody is taking care of that child. This is what we began to hear—that many parents have given up their God-given role as authority figures. So, we’ve decided that we’ve really got to encourage and empower parents to take back the territory they have ceded.
Dennis: I was talking to my daughter last night. You guys met her at an event—
Brenda: Yes, we did.
Kristen: That’s right.
Dennis: —that you spoke at. Ashley and I were talking about the freedom that is being afforded these young people with phones, with the internet, without much, if any, parental supervision. She shared about how one parent was talking about how the parent felt hijacked—like the parent had their home taken over by all these media.
I just looked at my daughter, and she just smiled. She said, “Daddy, the easiest thing to do is say, ‘Shut the phone off. Leave it here with us,’ as the parents. ‘No computer in your bedroom. It’s off after a certain period of time, after a certain amount of use—that’s it, case closed.’”
Bob: You’re thinking, “I tried that with you, and it never—you put up a fight back in the day.”
Dennis: Of course. They will, too; but what’s needed today—and I want you ladies to comment on this—is parents who are not the buddies but the parents who are setting the course to protect their children with appropriate moral protections, that go beyond just warning them about premarital sex, but with moral protections around all the invasions that can occur by the use of all these technologies.
Bob: Brenda, I remember feeling the fear, as a parent, that if I set boundaries, if I was not the buddy, I was going to foster rebellion, that my child was going to pull away, that I’d lose them, that I had to give in on some stuff in order to maintain the relationship.
Brenda: We encountered that idea a lot when we were talking to, particularly, school personnel. One social worker said, “Most parents work—two-income families. When they come home at night, they don’t want to say, ‘No, you can’t have that cell phone.’ They don’t want conflict with their child at night.”
Another force that just was mind-boggling to me—a number of people said, “We want our kids to be cool! We don’t want them to suffer—to go to school on Monday morning and they haven’t been able to play shooter games, they haven’t been able to talk on their cell phones because their parents don’t give them cell phones in middle school. We don’t want our kids to suffer!”
Bob: You don’t want your kids to be nerds in the—
Bob: —middle of school where everybody else is talking about the movie they saw—
Brenda: Right; right.
Bob: —you don’t want your kid to be the one that goes, “My parents won’t let me see that movie.”
Brenda: Right; right. That’s—this has been kind of a surprise to me. I come out of a different generation with more fire in the belly, more steel in the backbone. “No,” has always been a good word for me; but I’m working now as a psychotherapist. I’ve had to say to patients, “If you can’t say, ‘No,’ your ‘Yes,’ is meaningless.”
Dennis: Yes, that’s a good word.
Brenda: This applies to parents. If you can’t say, “No,” to things that you know, in your gut and in your heart, are harmful to your kids, then, your “Yes,” becomes meaningless.
I think one thing—don’t you think we’ve lost this sort of vision, in this culture, of the home—the protection that the home should afford? We have to push back on the culture. We have to prevent what many parents called a home invasion. We just have to do it. We can’t be passive bystanders.
Bob: I’ve got to know, here—Kristen, can you remember being 13-year-old Kristen Hunter and the fire in the eyes, steel—
Dennis: Steel backbone. [Laughter]
Bob: —steel backboned mom saying, “No, no, no.” You remember how you felt?
Kristen: Who could forget? Who could forget middle school? For me, which I relate in this book, was not only as the child of a fire-in-the-belly mother but it was also a time of real difficulty with friendships. In fact, we write about the importance of fitting in for kids.
I share a story, in our chapter on fitting in, in which I was in the lunchroom in Sparta Junior High School in seventh grade. I had this bionator that I had to wear, which I thought was really cruel and unusual punishment!
Bob: What’s a bionator?
Kristen: A bionator, let me tell you—and I don’t think they make them anymore, which is a cause for rejoicing—is a top and bottom retainer, all in one. I got to wear this in middle school.
Bob: Oh, yes, we called that head gear.
Bob: Yes, I had head gear. Yes.
Kristen: It was serious head gear for the unafraid. I plunged into the lunchroom, wearing this contraption, and watched, one day, as a piece of paper circulated around the room. I wondered what was going on. It was passed to the leader of our group, who opened it and read it out loud, and told me that I had just been voted off the lunch table, effective immediately. I can still remember the humiliation I felt that day and just the searing sense of rejection. I think that helped me access this sort of tween angst that is so common during this stage.
Bob: So, when your mom was saying, “No”—
Kristen: Yes, and here I had the bionator! [Laughter]
Bob: And all of this is going on.
Kristen: That’s right.
Bob: Did you ever—do you remember thinking, “I can’t wait until I am old enough to do what I want to do,” and, “I don’t like my mother”?
Kristen: I do remember that. Of course, I love her now, and here we’ve done this project together; but I actually told her—we did not have a TV, growing up.
Brenda: Can you believe that?
Kristen: Talk about—
Brenda: “No,” to television.
Kristen: Talk about countercultural.
Dennis: Yes, really.
Kristen: Yes, seriously. So, we didn’t have a TV, growing up. I remember telling her that when I grew up, I would eat Doritos® all day, drink Coke®—
Brenda: All day.
Kristen: —again, all day—and watch television all day; and I would let my children do this, too.
Dennis: So, do you have a TV?
Kristen: We do have a TV. My 15-year—my almost 15-year-old does not yet have a cell phone, which he does not feel is an enviable position. We’ve told him he can get one once he turns 15 and finishes ninth grade, but he did make it through middle school without one.
Bob: So, now, you’ve got a little fire in the belly and steel in your own backbone.
Kristen: I have a lot of fire in my belly!
Brenda: She does. She’s a very strict momma. She used to make fun of me saying I was so strict.
Bob: I think it’s important for listeners to hear this conversation, now, 15 years later—
Bob: —after the fact—when a young girl has grown up and is a mom of her own—because in those moments when you feel like, “I’m going to lose them. They’re going to hate me. They’re going to eat Doritos and eat Coke for the rest of their lives and watch all the TV they want,” —they’re kids!
Brenda: Right. I think a parent has to tolerate the momentary hatred. It’s not a popularity contest. We have to have a vision of parenting, a vision of how we want to stand before God when we are dead and we give account of how we’ve raised these children. This has to be what motivates us through these hard times; but this girl over here—she gave me the willies.
I remember when she was 13. I took her to the mall—maybe she was 12—and she walked ahead of me, and I couldn’t keep up with her. I said, “Kristen, slow down.” She said, “I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to be seen with you.”
Kristen: It’s true.
Brenda: I said, “Well, I’m not going to be a pariah. Either you walk with me, or we go home.” We went home.
Dennis: Oh, really?
Brenda: Oh, we did.
Dennis: I have to ask you, Kristen, because walking in the mall was one thing back then.
Dennis: You’re raising two right now, one who is a teenager and one who is about to become one. How do you see it being played out in your family with your children, right now?
Kristen: I agree absolutely that sometimes you just have to hunker down when you are standing on your convictions and understand that kids might not like it. We’ve certainly had that. I will tell you our decision to wait on the cell phone was not warmly embraced by our son, Austin. We’ve had some conversations where he has been very unhappy with us. He, now, respects and submits to that.
I also write about some conversations that we had about M-rated, violent, first-person shooter games, which many of his friends played, and he was really desperate to own. We said, “No,” to that. In fact, I can recall one conversation, driving home from school, in which we told him we didn’t want him to play these games at friends’ houses. He was really angry. We pulled into the neighborhood. I said to him, “I think you need to walk the rest of the way home.” It was just a short distance; but I said, “I think you need to cool off so you can learn to speak more respectfully.” I can report that the fresh air and exercise did him good. [Laughter]
Bob: I have to follow up on that because we just heard a story from the two men who give leadership to Chick-fil-A®. They were telling the story of being in the car with their dad and having a little sibling rivalry going on. They were on the highway. Dad pulled over and said, “I’ll meet you at the next exit.”
Kristen: Oh, my goodness.
Bob: Now, I don’t know if this would be considered legal. He’d probably get arrested for this today; but they said, “Not only did he meet them at the next exit, but the next time they were cross with one another in the car, all Dad had to do was to tap on the brake for a second, and the crossness went away.” It had an amazing curative effect—
Kristen: Chilling effect.
Bob: —on their behavior.
Dennis: I want to go back to the cell phone because there are a number of ears, right now, perked up and going, “Okay, so, at 15, it’s a ‘No.’” What’s the rule? What’s the boundary? What’s the age? What’s the level of maturity where you’re going to entrust that to him?
Kristen: Well, we talked about this a little bit before, Bob. There’s a real challenge in front of parents today, which is to prepare kids for engagement with modern life; and technology is here to stay. It’s not going away. We want to teach our kids online to be good digital citizens; but at the same time, we’re still making decisions about what’s age-appropriate. While these tools are beneficial, good tools, they are not all age-appropriate for middle schoolers. To me, that’s a key part of the argument that you raised, Dennis, which is, “What age is appropriate?” We say in the book that we don’t believe middle schoolers possess a maturity to handle a cell phone and all of the potential interactions that that brings into a child’s life.
Now, with Smart phones and lots of access to data, there are many, many different kinds of interactions and content that kids can access from various devices. I think this issue of, really, judicious restraint, in terms of what is age-appropriate and when—not that these tools are not good tools. They are. They are wonderful, but when is it appropriate to give it to a child?
Dennis: So, with your son who is 14, is it going to be 15, 17?
Kristen: We have told him that he will get a cell phone once he has finished ninth grade and once he turns 15. Even then, he will have some real restrictions on its usage. He accepts that, although he is very eager. As I mentioned, he is the only one, according to his accounts, which are probably pretty accurate—
Kristen: —in his ninth grade who does not have one.
Dennis: So, any spyware going to be on the phone?
Kristen: Well, he won’t have a phone with any kind of data package. He’ll just have a basic phone with some texting and calling.
Dennis: He’ll be able to make phone calls and receive phone calls, but he doesn’t have the ability to access the internet?
Kristen: No, no.
Bob: You can still get phones like that; huh?
Brenda: Yes, you can.
Kristen: You can, although the phones now—
Bob: They’re going away.
Kristen: —are just—I mean, it’s incredible the changes that have occurred, even within the past year or two, in terms of what’s available.
Dennis: As he moves on through high school, will he be trusted with that phone that has access to the internet before he graduates; or is that something you are going to let him deal with later on, after leaving your home?
Kristen: I think that we will look at it as time progresses and see where he is in terms of his maturity, and responsibility, and just to see what makes sense for him at that time.
We’ve had a lot of conversations, in the digital realm, in terms of what’s appropriate to post online and understanding that kids—each child, growing up, has a digital footprint—the more and more they put out there. He knows how I feel about that as an education writer—looking at the long-term ramifications. It’s not just the cell phone, of course, that we’re talking about. It’s the potential with social networking and other issues.
Bob: Well, as we were talking about this earlier, the ultimate issue is not a technology issue; it’s a heart issue because, whether he’s got a cell phone or not, it’s really an issue of what’s going on in his heart. Technology can certainly enable us to act out in ways we ought not to act out, but the technology is not where the evil is. The evil is right in here, in the human heart.
Brenda: I would like to respond, at this point. You know, our title is From Santa to Sexting. Sexting is a felony in many states in this country, although lawmakers are working to change that; but sexting refers to sending a nude image, via a cell phone, to another person.
Two girls have committed suicide, one 18-year-old and one 13-year-old, because they sent a nude image of themselves to a boyfriend. Then, these images went viral. For one girl, Hope Witsell in Florida, who’s now deceased, went all over her middle school. These two girls went back to school after this. They were called horrible names—unrepeatable names on the air by their classmates. They were basically shunned. So, they killed themselves. The sexting was an impulsive act. It takes a few seconds.
Dennis: What I want our listeners to hear in all this is not only the danger that is represented here—it can be a life and death danger—but I also want them to hear the process Kristen and her husband are engaging in around how you hammer out what your family believes. You may disagree with where they are. That’s okay.
The question is for you, “What do you believe? What have you and your spouse, or what have you, as a single-parent, decided you’re going to do with your kids? What are the boundaries? Why have you established those boundaries? How will you enforce them?” That’s the key for parents to assume the responsibility God has given them and not to back away at a time when an 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-year-old desperately needs a mature—
Dennis: —adult in his or her life, recognizing that—I don’t care how mature they tell you they are—they are still 11, 12, 13, or 14.
Bob: Well, parents had better have a game plan. They better not head into these middle school years and just make it up as they go along. They need a strategy. They need to have thought through what’s coming. You’ve tried to provide some stimulating thinking in the book, From Santa to Sexting, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how you can get a copy of this book by Brenda Hunter and Kristen Blair. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call us, toll-free, at 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information about the book.
Of course, we think a part of that strategy, as you head into the middle school years, ought to be a getaway weekend for you and your son or daughter—one of our Passport2Purity® weekends. We’ve got the kit that gives you everything you need so that you can have a great weekend away with your son or daughter as you head into adolescence. The best time to do this is right before you enter adolescence. We’ve just updated the Passport2Purity resource. The team’s done a great job with it. You can get more information about it when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us, toll-free, at 1-800-FL-TODAY. We’ll let you know how you can have the Passport2Purity kit sent to you.
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We hope you’ll be back with us tomorrow. We’re going to continue our conversation with Brenda Hunter and Kristen Blair about the middle school years and some of the dangers that are there for our sons and our daughters.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. See you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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