Think back, if you will, on your middle school experience. Do you remember a time when you were not invited to a gathering of your friends? Do you remember the feeling in the pit of your stomach? Feeling lonely and unloved? Do you remember what you did about it?
As adults, we realize that the lack of an invitation doesn’t mean a lack of love. We know that not everyone gets invited to everything. We are happy our friends are gathering and content that we have our own lives going on simultaneously. If we are feeling hurt, we possess the ability to tell our friends directly, and they are able to respond in a way that allows the friendship to move forward.
To achieve this perspective, I used to believe that one needs years, experience, wisdom, and maturity. Being in a relationship of any kind requires vulnerability. Expressing hurt feelings requires risk-taking. Recognizing that you caused hurt feelings by your actions, intended or otherwise, requires empathy and care. These weren’t skills my friendship group possessed in middle school.
Hurt feelings happen on a daily basis. Kids sometimes choose to respond in various unhealthy and unproductive ways like anger, frustration, the silent treatment, gathering friends to take sides, or gossiping. However, with purposeful guidance and modeling, they also start to learn healthier ways like taking a risk to voice hurt feelings and communicating a plan to build a bridge back to a positive relationship. The person who caused the hurt then has an opportunity to be open-minded and caring in formulating a positive response.
In the last week, I have had the privilege of taking part in a handful of conversations between friends with hurt feelings from both ends of the middle school age spectrum. One of the best parts of my job is watching students decide to put a voice to their vulnerability and watching the recipients of that voice choose to handle those feelings with the utmost care. It is so hard to voice hurt feelings. It is equally hard to hear that your actions caused hurt feelings in others, to own that, and to do the hard work of repairing a relationship.
These are not skills that can be measured by a standardized test. Students cannot be given a grade in “willingness to be vulnerable” nor “ability to respond to a hurt friend with kindness and compassion.” If they could, I have a feeling MCDS middle schoolers would come out well above average. At the very least, they are well ahead of me and my middle school friends.