Middle school is notorious for being a time when children are a little more self centered than usual. In part, this is because of changes in brain development. This self-centeredness is also due to the shifting focus from parental to peer influence. And throw in the hormonal changes and you can understand why these years are often full of selfishness, miscommunication, bad decisions, and hurt feelings.
It is for these reasons that kids need their parents’ support during this stage of development, maybe even more than any other stage of life.
If you are a parent of an adolescent or pre-teen, you know exactly what I am talking about. And while there are many challenges that kids experience at this stage of life, it is still possible to raise empathetic, compassionate adolescents.
The trick is in the subtly. (Adolescents are on to you if you are direct.)
My mom always had these subtle ways to encourage us to be kind. And it was her encouragement whispered repeatedly in my brother’s ear which led to an unlikely lifelong friendship.
When my brother, Dan, was in middle school he was in the same homeroom as Peter Brill. During the seventh grade year, Peter’s parents struggled to get him out of bed in the morning. Since Peter was not very verbal, they weren’t quite sure what was going on.
At one point, the guidance counselor informed Mrs. Brill that there was someone bullying him. Once that was addressed, Peter was still very anxious about going to school. Then, all of a sudden, Peter’s anxiety seemed to subside, and Peter began to talk about Dan, “different Dan.”
(Peter already had another friend named Daniel who had been in his special education classes for years. So he referred to my brother as “different Dan.”)
During that year, my mother frequently drove by brother, Dan, to school early to get extra help with his honors math class. And, as he was leaving the car she would say, “if you find somebody who needs a friend today, be that friend.”
My brother, and Peter bonded over their love of Penn State. One day Peter noticed Dan’s Penn State sweatshirt and he started spouting off scores. “So, then, whenever we wanted to know the sports score we would ask Peter” says Dan. So they developed a friendship as simple as that. Dan, who was involved in student government and football, introduced Peter to all of his friends. “After that, school was much easier for Peter,” – says Mrs. Brill.
It was through Peter that Dan met Daniel Gibson.
“In 10th grade Peter’s teacher got Peter and Daniel Gibson to be the managers of the football team. They were instant celebrities overnight.” says Dan. Since Dan was on the football team, their relationship continued.
Twenty three years later, the trio are still friends.
Peter Brill, Dan Dougherty, & Dan Gibson
Peter and Daniel were in my brother Dan’s wedding a few years ago. And, since this past summer, Dan and his family live within walking distance of Peter and Daniel.
When I asked Dan how he has benefited from his friendship with Peter and Daniel he says, “I have learned how to be a better friend to other people. Peter’s loyalty and ability to forgive is amazing. It taught me how to reach out to others and to be compassionate about their time if they don’t want to talk; it’s like, maybe, there is something going on. I think I have benefited a lot more than they have.”
And, while reflecting on Peter and Daniel’s friendship, Mrs. Brill says my brother “Dan is very special to us. He was truly an angel in Peter’s life and our life.”
According to Mrs. Brill, “Peter is a gregarious introvert he has thousands of acquaintances but few friends. Dan and Daniel are his friends.”-
I asked Dan what he would say to parents of adolescents about forming friendship with others different than themselves. Dan says, “A lot of people surround themselves with people that are similar to them. Think about your friends from high school, they kind of come and go. I don’t know Dan and Peter….They are kind of like a rock. My life can be a whirlwind of activity their lives are constant and they are always happy.”
Dan also makes it very clear that, when it comes to his relationship with Peter and Daniel, he is the blessed one.
And, to think that their relationship all started with the gentle suggestion of my mother… She never could have predicted the impact of her words.
So, as a parent, educator, or influencer in the life of an adolescent, know that your voice resounds louder and stronger than you think. Though you might not see it now, you are truly shaping lives.