The “Middle School Syndrome”

A Dad's Point of View by Bruce SallanMy “A Dad’s Point-of-View” column is carried all over the world and one of the wonderful peripheral benefits I receive is “virtually” meeting so many wonderful editors, publishers, and web-masters.  One of them is Jennifer Jurgens, the news director/executive assistant, at They have 17 community websites across Wyoming. She is also a wonderful and involved mom.  Recently, she wrote to me asking some questions that related to her daughter beginning middle school.  Well, to be more accurate, she was suggesting that these questions (a.k.a. issues) could be the basis for one of my columns.

Unlike the “Empty Nest Syndrome,” that is well known, documented, and ubiquitously written about, the “Middle School Syndrome” is my term for what I believe is a newer “syndrome.”  This column will bring this reality out from the shadows where it has lurked!  To be clear, the term “Middle School Syndrome” is mine and it is based on my experiences and those of parents that I know.  I suspect it is widespread, but I’m sure it is not present in every community and every school district.

It all begins today with pre-school, which was known as “nursery school” when I attended.  It was a simple affair when I attended.  We played.  And, then we played some more.  Now, in some exclusive regions of our country, the parents have to beg and show their financial statements to get their precious darlings into the pre-school du jour.

Thus, the school journey begins and it has become much more complicated than in the past.  As we know all too well, our country’s budget problems have caused numerous cutbacks in schools nationwide.  Programs that were standard when I attended primary school, like sports, music, “shops” (e.g. wood, metal, and auto), are largely gone or have been relegated to after-school and parent-supported activities.

Plus, class-size and budget cuts have resulted in much more active recruitment by the schools of parent volunteers and much more political and clique-driven parent-teacher associations, run mostly by the SAHMs (Stay-At-Home-Moms). Many of these women came from the business world and bring that energy, enthusiasm, and drive to these parent-teacher groups.

I became the SAHD (Stay-At-Home-Dad) for my two boys during the early days of their elementary school education and, later, became the 24/7 parent when my first wife and I separated and later divorced.  During those years, I was thrust into the different and strange world of these parent-teacher organizations.  Dads were few and far between.  I was treated with a sort of distant tolerance but it quickly became clear that these moms did not want a man in their midst.

At first, I found this a bit hurtful but later understood that the basic gender differences and interests were largely what motivated my isolation from the inner-core of these parent groups.  I chose to volunteer directly in my boys’ classes, give my donated funds directly to their teachers, and thus actually got more personal benefit, satisfaction, and value for my money and time.

It was abundantly clear to me that the parent role in elementary school had undergone a significant and distinct change in the past decade or two.  No longer were parents invited to attend just a “back-to-school” day or occasional assembly. Now there were monthly assemblies, regular fund-raisers, and constant demands for time and money from the parents.

I took particular ironic pleasure in these assemblies where, over the course of the school year, every kid in every class would eventually “earn” an award.  In the name of self-esteem, these awards naturally lost any value they might have otherwise had.  But, it was a regular opportunity for the parents to take video and photos of their “darlings” and another opportunity for the elite of the parent-teacher organizations to stand up and speak on behalf of all the parents and on behalf of the school fund-raising efforts.

So, parents now had new jobs.  They helped run their kids’ schools, raise the funds to meet their school’s budgets, and began having a say in much more of their kid’s education than had ever occurred before.  Naturally, it filled that work need that so many of these former career-driven moms had forsaken for the role and job of mom.  In other words, it took on too much importance in their lives and became too much a part of their identity.

Now we get to the heart of the matter and why I think that we have “the middle school syndrome.”  The reason is simply that the middle schools pretty much banish the parents and actually run themselves.  So, these parents who were taking such pride, pleasure, and job satisfaction from the seven years of elementary school participation all of a sudden find themselves “jobless.”

So, as my friend Jennifer suggested in her letter to me on this subject, she was trying to figure out her new role, now that her daughter had begun middle school.  I responded that her new role was age-old; she now was just going to have to settle for being her daughter’s mother, rather than her political advocate and parent-teacher advisor at her school.  And that, my friends, is the sum and substance of “the middle school syndrome”–moms and dads having to settle for just raising their children, teaching them their values, monitoring their activities, and letting the schools take care of their offspring’s education.

Lesson?  Let go.  Be the best mom or dad you can be.  And, maybe, take up golf.

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