Navigating the uncharted and often rough waters of the middle school years can be challenging, to say the least, for both parents and children. Local educator and author Joe Bruzzese is helping parents stay calm through the ups and downs that their kids are destined to experience.
“Right now your greatest challenge is just to stay off the roller coaster of emotion that your child is going through and just kind of let time work out some of the challenges,” said Bruzzese, author of A Parent’s Guide to the Middle School Years.
“For most parents the instinct is to jump in and save the day. But if you can allow yourself the opportunity to step back and let your kids kind of take care of some of the social issues on their own, they’re better for it because they learn about those relationships and how they work.”
Take a deep breath and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride is an underlying theme in much of Bruzzese’s advice, as he travels around the country speaking to educators and parenting groups about the middle school years, covering topics such as friendships, academics, balancing school with activities, keeping kids safe online and thriving as a family.
If he could offer just one piece of advice to parents it would be to think long term.
“By that I mean when your child enters seventh grade, you literally have six years before they are walking out the door to go to college or to a career or on to whatever they are going to do,” said Bruzzese, whose daughter, Jordyn, will enter seventh grade at Goleta Valley Junior High in the fall. His son, Tristan, is 10 and both children attend El Camino School, where their mother, Kim, is principal.
Bruzzese, a UCSB grad, is a professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education there and also teaches courses at Westmont College. Between teaching, writing books and articles, producing parenting videos for his Web site, running an online bullying-reporting program called Sprigeo (Click here for a related story on Sprigeo and online bullying) and speaking engagements, Bruzzese is a pretty busy guy — but he still manages to prioritize time with his family.
“I enjoy the speaking, but I don’t need to go every week to do it,” he said. “I find it’s hard to talk about being a great parent when you’re not ever at home with your own family. So it’s kind of the balance ... there are only a certain number of years when your kids are going to be at home.
“One of the things I really wanted to be able to do was to be there and pick up my kids at the end of the school day. ... (When they head to middle school) you have six years to build the relationship that you are going to have with them as an adult. So if you would like your child to pick up the phone and call you, now is the time to start working on that relationship.
“It’s really easy to get focused in on the short-term of what sports program are they involved with, who are their friends, and lose sight of the fact that six years from now they are pretty much done with you as far as the day to day,” he continued.
When Bruzzese speaks to parent groups, he always asks them about their challenges with their middle school kids. Overwhelming, the top response: “What’s with the attitude?” He laughed, “What happened to the child that used to love me and when are they coming back?”
Naturally, parents are looking for the magic words that will help them connect with their kids.
“Parents seem to want to know what the right things are to say, and there are no right or wrong things to say,” he said. “There are some things that will definitely lead you to a conflict faster than other things.
“What the kids will say (when I ask them about challenges) is ‘I wish my parents would just stop nagging me about things.’ So I let parents know enough with the nagging. Set the expectation of what you need your child to be doing and define it in a timeframe that’s reasonable, and then hold them accountable. That’s kind of the basic process right there.”
Bruzzese taught middle school for 10 years and was also a club-level soccer coach for many years.
“That experience as much as being a classroom teacher was an education about kids and families; even more so because you’re traveling with them and you get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of what’s happening with kids during that time,” he said. “That was a real education for me.”
Also an education for him are the questions he gets from parents.
“There are lots of questions about school safety, about bullying and cyber bullying, which dovetails very nicely into what’s with the Internet and what are we going to do about cell phones,” he said. “For the first time today’s generation of parents is a generation of parents who grew up with cell phones. That’s a major shift.
“There is always going to be a new technology tool but because of that there’s a huge gap between parents and kids that we have to try and observe somehow.”
Bruzzese talks and writes extensively about Facebook and parents having unparalleled access to their children’s peer groups.
“It’s one of those things where the technology piece and the Internet aren’t going away,” he said. “So it’s how can you embrace the good parts of that and still find the balance between keeping your child safe online and allowing them to explore and see what the good things are out there.”
Bruzzese grew up in Las Vegas and came to Santa Barbara for college. His wife, Kim, is a native, “so we were kind of destined to be here,” he said.
An outdoor sports enthusiast, Bruzzese bikes, does master’s swimming and competes in triathlons, and the family likes going to the beach and simply hanging out together whenever they can. As his daughter approaches her middle school years, Bruzzese acknowledges that time is moving fast.
“I’m sure there are tough times on the way — stomp me right on the head times,” he said. “But it will be there and done before you know it. You’ve got to soak it up, especially the good times.”
Click here for a related story on the Sprigeo online bully reporting system.