If there is one uniting thread among most adults, it is the grimace that flashes across our collective faces when asked to recall our middle school years. We can taste The Awkward like it was yesterday. For some of us it began early, maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and for others it arrived during our high school years, but regardless of the timeline, we all had an awkward phase.
Our bodies were a train wreck of change. Skin became pimpled, hair became frizzy, limbs became longer, hips emerged, features were never what we wished for, and everything smelled.
Our emotions were an ocean of conflicting feelings. One minute we were on cloud nine. The next we were in the pit of despair. Angry at the drop of a hat, sad over the wrong color shirt, afraid of what we saw in the mirror, and unable to control any of it.
Our social skills, whether we realized it or not at the time, were laughable at best and embarrassing at worst. We said the wrong thing (did we even know the right thing?). We were mean or quiet or shy or attention-seeking or a mix of it all. We wanted to be grown up, to fit in, to be cool, but we lacked the tools to make it so.
The combination of all of these factors left most of us completely and utterly awkward. It is painful to look back at photos and remember how hard it was, how comical we looked, how we had no idea what were doing nor how to do any of it. This time of life is also when heartache and wounding begins. Bullying, disapproval, being left out, not making the team, not knowing the cool way to talk or dress…it all gets heaped on top of The Awkward.
As a parent, it can be difficult to watch our own children leave behind the darling beauty of childhood and enter the harrowing halls of adolescence. Maybe we thought our children would skate by and get a pass. Maybe we thought we could protect them or keep them from brushing up against The Awkward. Despite our efforts, every child must go through a transformation as they become an adult, and most of them will be awkward in the process.
As a younger parent, when my children entered The Awkward, I found myself wanting to shuffle them through as quickly as possible. I thought I could hurry the process if I helped them avoid all awkward choices and corrected them when they were acting like the middle-schoolers that they were. My intentions were good, but the method was flawed. Middle schoolers do not need to be saved from their awkwardness. They need to be accepted, affirmed, loved, cheered. The Awkward is not a problem to be managed. It is a phase to be embraced.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps when my oldest began to emerge from The Awkward and I realized she was not going to be defined by her middle school self, I decided to embrace The Awkward phase with my other children and see what would happen if I let it be. I would continue to parent them according to the standards my husband and I believed were important, but I would not try to protect or prevent their awkwardness. I would let them be awkward.
Let Them Be Awkward became a mantra that helped me mother my children through the trenches of what I believe is the worst phase of child development. Let Them Be Awkward requires me to leave behind my judgements, my fears, and my need to control the optics when it comes to my child. They are awkward. But, as I have learned, they will not stay awkward. I chose to embrace this fleeting season of their life knowing I will look back on it fondly one day and smile at every awkward detail.
If I recall back to my middle school self and what she needed, it wasn’t a hair stylist or etiquette lessons or a public relations professional or a social manager or someone to curb my awkward tendencies. She needed a safe place to land during The Awkward and to see the light of acceptance and approval reflected back to her in the eyes of a loving adult. Gentle reminders of her sense of belonging and smiles of delight and acceptance would have felt really wonderful and served her well.
Middle schoolers, particularly girls, do not need to be reminded of how they don’t fit in. They see it in the mirror, they see it in the media, they see it online, they hear it from their friends, and they hear it in their own heads. Let Them Be Awkward creates space where none of this matters. Let Them Be Awkward delivers instant love and acceptance, despite what you see in front of you.
When they walk out in an outfit that makes you want to cringe, you smile and immediately say, “I love that color on you!” One day they will figure out how to wear clothes.
When they decide to wear exotic turquoise eyeliner to volleyball practice on a Tuesday, you light up and say, “Wow! Tell me how you learned to do that eyeliner! I love it!” One day they will understand how to apply makeup.
When they are talking, trying to make adult-ish conversation, but the banter is absolutely not landing, you respond with, “So true! What else did that make you think about?” One day they will be able to participate in conversations well.
The motivation behind our decision as parents to look directly at The Awkward and not flinch is acceptance, love, safety, and trust. Let Them Be Awkward provides a soft place for them to land.
Are there situations where you as a mother need to step in and tell your child that their outfit is inappropriate or they need to put on deodorant or the joke they just made crossed a line? Absolutely! We do not abandon our parenting standards during adolescence. Adolescence is when children most need structure and guidance because their brains literally are not working. But we can let them be awkward when nothing of note is at stake. Yes, The Awkward comes with a heaping portion of cringy behavior. But if nothing is at stake, what if you just let them be awkward and showered them with heaps of safety and love?
In hind sight, when I look back at middle school photos of my now college and high school-aged kids, I realize their awkward years bring a twinge of nostalgia. At the time, if I am honest, I was worried. Worried they wouldn’t figure out how to dress. Worried they would always wear the wrong makeup or not understand how to style their hair or show up smelling like someone poured the entire bottle of drugstore perfume on them. I was worried one of my children in particular would never learn where the line was on appropriate jokes. But now, with twenty years of parenting under my belt, I know they grow out of that stage and leave it behind, and to accept The Awkward is more beneficial than trying to steer them around it.
All of us were awkward at some point. You were awkward. I was terribly awkward. But we grew out of it, and we now have the opportunity to parent differently then we may have been parented. Our kids don’t have it all figured out, and that is perfectly fine. They have the rest of their life to grow up and learn how to live in the world as an adult. Along the way, let them be awkward.