Folks, this week my baby girl turns 11. Her 10th birthday hit me mighty hard, like Miley Cyrus and a wrecking ball kind of hard. Maybe it was the fact that she was turning double digits - it felt like I was officially kissing her childhood farewell.
And so much has happened over the course of this last year. We’ve sold a house, moved into my parents for an extended stay, remodeled another house, moved again, adjusted to being a blended family, and traveled for the first time in a few years! Personally, she’s experienced a lot of growth and change this year - coming to terms with being a 5th grader and leaving elementary school, the ever-changing dynamics of her social groups, PUBERTY, and learning to trust and love new people in her life.
So, as I sit here with a box of Kleenex TRYING not to bawl my eyes out at the fact that my first-born is heading off to the tumultuous and piranha-infested waters of middle school next year and is solidifying her position as a pre-teen, two nights before her official birthday, I find myself reflecting on all she’s gone through, and what lies ahead for her these next three years.
YOU GUYS! This is what I’ve been TRAINING FOR!!! Because while she’s turning 11, I’ve been teaching middle school for 11 years. Safe to say, I’ve gathered a few notes along the way. So, here are my Top 11 for My 11 After 11:
11. Wear What Makes You Feel Good
It’s easy to get caught up in what everyone else is wearing - from labels, to styles, to color choices even. But screw ‘em. Baby girl, you’re likely going to spend the rest of your adult life having to conform to a business casual uniform. These are the days you can wear what YOU want - what you feel coziest in and what boosts your confidence most. If it’s sweatpants, go for it. If it’s skinny jeans and a wedge heel, rock it. Whether it comes from Wal-Mart, Express, or the Under Armour Outlet, it shouldn’t matter. When you feel good in what you’re wearing, it’s a serious mood-changer. I swear your outfit can be a superpower and your energy shifts. And when you feel good about yourself and comfy, the bigger problems seem slightly more manageable.
10. Don’t Give Into the Gossip
The hallways, classrooms, and group chats of middle school girls can feel like a literal gauntlet. It’s inevitable: at some point over the next three years, you’ll find yourself in a situation where gossip is flowing like the Fountain of Youth from the mouths of your friends (or even yours). I’m going to hit you with a HARD STOP right there.
DO NOT ENGAGE. DO NOT PASS GO or COLLECT $100. Baby girl, do your best to keep other girls’ (and guys’) names out of your mouth. As Mimi always says (to quote Thumper) “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” There will be plenty of people spreading negativity - you don’t need to be one of them. It doesn’t do anyone any good and typically, the dirt being dished ISN’T EVEN ACCURATE. You’ll thank me for this later, but distance yourself as much as you can from classmates and friends who spend their time tearing others down. If they’re talking about another person to you, they’ll have no problem talking ABOUT you.
9. Don’t Say Anything You Aren’t Willing to Put Your Name To
IF you are tempted, as most of us pre-teen and teen girls were, to try out a few tongue-lashings, let me give you this advice: never say anything you’re not willing to repeat to someone’s face or put your name to. If you don’t have the courage to say it to them, or to own it when confronted, you shouldn’t be saying it at all. Now, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to go around saying whatever the hell you want, or give you permission to just be mean. But if you feel strongly enough about what you’re saying and say it with conviction, then be prepared to deal with the fall-out and all the consequences that come with it. You might anger someone, you may even lose a friend or two in the process. But generally, I’ve found that people respect you more for being honest and outright instead of duplicitous and sneaky.
8. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Different
Kid, you’ve been your own person from the day you were born. From the moment they ripped you from my stomach, you were squawking and screaming and you haven’t shut up since. And I love that about you. You are passionate and on fire about the things that matter to you. You like who you like and distance yourself from those you don’t and aren’t afraid to call people out. You’ve never been a sports girl and never felt the peer pressure from friends to join in on their activities just because. You wear overalls with leggings and hoodie sweatshirts, rocking all sorts of 90s vibes. You chose teal glasses over the more conspicuous black or brown frames. Your favorite food has been calamari since the age of 4.
You’ve never “fit in.” Please, for all things holy in this world, don’t start trying to now. After 11 years in a middle school, I’ve watched as kids try so hard to fit in, when they should be celebrating all that makes them stand out. Your differences - your quirks, your idiosyncrasies - are what I love most about you. And exactly what this world needs.
7. Find Something To Make You Move
I know, I know - “sports aren’t your thing.” While watching you chase butterflies and pick buttercups that one season of 4 year-old soccer, I quickly realized you probably wouldn’t be playing D-1 ANYTHING in this lifetime. BUT… your body needs to move. As a woman who has struggled with her body image and weight her entire life, I recognize how important it is to build healthy habits. So whether you commit to walking every day after school, or go for a jog a few times a week, or start a daily yoga routine, find something to get your body moving. Not only will it have a number of beneficial effects on your body, it’ll do wonders for your mind. Movement can help you channel some of your stressors and is a healthy coping mechanism. Not to mention, as a woman, there’s something to be said for feeling strong - mentally and physically. It’s just a bad ass feeling. Trust me on this one.
6. Try New Things
Middle school is all about exploration. Elementary school started to showcase your various strengths, and also pointed out those areas you struggle a little more with. But now that you have an idea what you’re good at, go find out what you LIKE! Take electives you’re curious about. Open yourself up to different learning opportunities. Sample from the extra-curricular activities menu - try different sports, clubs, languages, activities. Hang out with new people! The four middle schools in our town will soon collide in one building - don’t be so hellbent on holding onto old friendships that you don’t indulge in building new ones, too.
The pressures of high school can feel overwhelming and your path can feel pre-determined before you even step into that building. So use these next three years to figure out what makes your eyes grow big. What leaves you smiling, gasping for air, ALIVE!
5. You Don’t Need to Be Perfect
Because you’re not. But good news - no one is! You are human, baby. And you are a growing human whose brain has not fully developed yet. I have no expectation that you will make it through these next three years (or 7, or 15, for that matter) without messing up at some point.
You’re going to make mistakes. In my classroom, I have a poster that hangs on the wall: “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.” I WANT you to mess up. I NEED you to make mistakes. If you’re not, you’re not growing. You’re not pushing yourself enough. You’re not learning. And baby girl, I’d much rather you make mistakes now, at this age, than when you’re 15, 18, 20, and the consequences of those mistakes carry a much heavier weight.
4. Develop Your Own Beliefs and Opinions
Not mine. Not your dad’s. Not your classmate’s. Your own. Will they overlap with ours? Possibly. But not always. Your generation is changing the world in so many ways. How can I expect our views to be exactly the same? No, we will both grow over these next three years.
My hope is that you are presented with different perspectives, that others’ different viewpoints will push your thinking. And in doing that, you’ll push mine. I can’t wait for us to sit down and TALK through a big topic we disagree on. I can’t wait to watch you grow into your own set of values - the values you’ll use to guide your decisions and choices over the next few years.
3. You Won't Always Get the Trophy
Kid, you’re a marvel. You blow my mind at least once a week: whether you’re mastering graphic design programs, building websites, leading your own art tutorials, or sketching something professional-looking when I can’t even draw a stick figure. BUT… you won’t always be the best. And definitely not at everything you try. And that’s perfectly OK. You can allow yourself to do things just because you love doing it, not because you need a prize or to be deemed the best. It’s more than acceptable to have hobbies and interests that you’re passionate about, but not great at. Life is about more than accolades and accomplishments. Do what sets your soul on fire, kiddo. Who cares if it makes you money, gets you followers or fame, or wins you some contest? Do it because you love it. And also, if you’re always the best one in the room or at the table, you’ll never grow. Challenge yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Surround yourself with folks who know more than you, are better than you. When you do, you’ll put yourself in a situation to level up. And in doing so, you’ll grow infinitely in your craft.
2. Hold Onto the Good Ones
This last year has left you with some BIG feelings. And I imagine this next chapter will have some more lessons in love in store for you. And as you navigate crushes, dating, and puppy love, I want to impart one of my life’s biggest realizations: your girlfriends will fill a place in your heart no partner ever will. You’ll be tempted to prioritize a relationship over friendships. You’ll be tempted to make that person your entire world. Your day will start and set on this person. But babe, that person will come and go. I’m not being pessimistic, just a realist. But you know who will be there, beginning to end? Your girlfriends. Who will hype you up and help you choose outfits for your first date? Your girls. Who will bring you their leftover Halloween candy to sneak during class when that kid crushes your heart and leaves it for dust? Your closest pals. Don’t forget them or forsake them. Nourish your friendships. Love will come, in time. I know it’s hard, because the further you dive into the volcano that is puberty, the more that volcanic lava is leading the way with your emotions. But love is a complicated topic and one not easily understood by full-grown adults (heck, I’m still working my way through the crash course), let alone teens. Use these next three years (and high school) to find your people. Figure out who the good friends are - who’s got your back no matter what, who you can call at 7 am on a Saturday morning because you couldn’t sleep and needed to talk, who would never dare to date that kid because they know you two have history. Find your loyalty, your pack, your cheerleaders, your hype girls, your equally weird, your inside jokes. Find them and DO NOT LET THEM GO.
1. It’s OK To Leave Me Behind
I give you full permission. I’m slowly learning to let go, you see. It’s not an easy thing for me, my first-born. You’re my rough draft and I’ve made so many mistakes already, I can’t imagine how many countless more I’ll make on this next adventure of ours. But I know middle school and your teen years is about you testing your wings. For a decade now, I've observed other parents toggling this line, trying to figure out how much to hold on or let go. And I want you to know, I trust you. You’ve proven so far that you’re far more capable than I ever was at your age - emotionally, intellectually, worldly. I have faith in you and the young lady you’re becoming, and I trust the decisions and choices you’ll make. I won’t leave you
and I’ll be here, guiding you as much as you let me. But I’m ok if you ride up ahead of me for a little. I’ll still jog behind you, prepared with Band-Aids and a hug if you happen to crash and fall. But the training wheels are off. You’re ready. And I couldn’t be prouder.