The news this week of two arrests in the case of a 12-year-old suicide is a reminder of how middle school drama can go awry. When personality clashes move from misunderstanding and conflict to tormenting and bullying, and when there appears to be no safe place — terrible events can occur.
Last month, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, of Winter Haven, Fla., jumped to her death from the top of an abandoned concrete plant. The two arrests this past weekend included a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old who were charged with aggravated stalking.
Posts online from the 14-year-old's Facebook account led Grady Judd, Polk County sheriff, to arrest the two girls.
Both of our two children are in middle school. One is in 8th grade and one in 6th. Middle School is a time to grow from the structure of elementary school and get ready for the freedom of High School.
It's a time to build social networks and try different sports and after-school activities, a time to fail and learn that when you fail it does not mean you are a failure. A time to learn more about who you are and with whom you want to associate.
Parents can help their children navigate these years by providing structure and oversight without smothering them and by providing children with a safe place to talk and to share, as well as a place to unplug and relax. For many parents, it's challenging to know where the oversight should stop and the freedom should begin.
My own middle school years (or junior high, as it was called back then) were challenging. We moved in the middle of my seventh grade year from Carrollton, Ga., to Fairfax, Va. I can remember walking into the cafeteria, getting my food and looking around for someplace to sit, not seeing a friendly face. I chose to put my tray back and go to the library instead.
Most of my lunch periods were spent in the library, where I could read rather than have to deal with where to sit. Eventually I made new friends; they were few, but funny. There were opportunities to make inroads with other groups in the school, but they most often revolved around kids with plastic bags, money, and pills changing hands.
The change from Carrollton to Fairfax was not only one of weather, but also affluence and access to drugs. I looked on from afar and kept my distance.
Looking back on these years, I consider myself lucky that I learned to distract myself (reading), made a few friends, and that I stayed away from drugs, drinking, and most of the drama of the school.
As middle school parents, my husband Jimmy and I often talk about the boundaries that we have set for our children. No TV or computers in their bedrooms, only in family rooms, no Facebook, Instagram, or other online accounts, frequent checking of texts sent and received, online tracking of phones, nightly charging in the kitchen and frequent conversations about the potential dangers of online activity.
Possibly my background has made me a bit more wary than the average person. My father has been in the news and newspaper since before I was my youngest child's age. Often the stories circulated were false, and I learned early on that my best defense was a bright smile and a thick skin.
The 2012 Republican Primary provided the same opportunity for my children. One of my favorite memories from the race happened about two years ago. I was picking up our then 6th grader from school. When I asked her how her day was, she replied that it was fine, but there was a lot of middle school drama. She continued, saying that since her family was tied up in national drama, she was going to ignore the middle school drama.
Wise words from a then-12-year-old.
There is always the potential for drama in life, whether it's middle school or other areas. It's important that we not only set limits and examples for our children, but for ourselves as well. In our ever-connected world, in order to disconnect from the online world and connect with those that are physically near us, we have to make a concerted effort.
It's important to set limits, provide structure and a safe place to unwind and relax — both for ourselves and our children.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman is the co-author, along with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of the book "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours." Read more reports from Jackie Gingrich Cushman — Click Here Now.