When I mention to acquaintances that I work at a middle school handling student behavior and discipline, I usually hear some version of three responses:

“Wow, that’s gotta be challenging.”

“Really? That’s such a tough age. Do you, um, like it?”

“I’m sure the kids are lucky to have you.”

I never know quite how to interpret the last one. It sounds a bit patronizing, or maybe the other person is just surprised that I’m not a fire-breathing dragon.

But my favorite so far is, “God, that sounds awful.”

It’s true that eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are at a tumultuous stage in their lives, but no, my job is not awful. I like it quite a lot. The students are endlessly fascinating, and I’m grateful to be surrounded by colleagues who “get” kids this age.

As a staff, we work on cultivating a positive a culture at school, but even in our idyllic little town life can be harsh. Beyond the usual lost backpacks and confiscated cell phones, some of the situations our kids face are seriously tough. We have students who come to school shouldering burdens that would bring an adult to their knees.

Even when their lives are otherwise okay, kids this age are capable of making drastically poor choices, ones that threaten their futures. The toxicity of popular culture is no help, and neither is the relentless onslaught of 24/7 social media. In the face of all this, we want students to solve multiple-step equations and explain the importance of the Magna Carta.

My coworkers do our best to get through  each day with as little drama as possible. It takes a yin-yang balance of compassion and detachment, respect and healthy skepticism, plus a well-honed sense of humor. On the whole, I think we do a good job of maintaining our perspective with the students. Where we lose it, or at least where I lose it, is with their parents.

Don’t get me wrong: the vast majority of the parents at our school are supportive and wonderful. And yet.

I could tell you stories, believe me. The helicopter parents, the oblivious parents, the parents who refuse to believe that their little dumpling could ever be at fault. The parents who give their kids way too much and the parents who don’t seem to care if their kids have what they need, even when it’s not a matter of economic hardship. The parents who believe everything their kid tells them and therefore conclude the staff is lying. The parents who are simply rude. The parents who want the world to adapt to their child, rather than the other way around.

I’m not going to speak for my colleagues, but this is where I run up against the limits of my forbearance. This is when I transform into Judge Jan.

Compared to other aspects of my personality, Judge Jan is far from my favorite. But she has a way of hijacking me as I’m recovering from an encounter with a parent who is shrill, accusatory, or otherwise unreasonable. The moment the coast is clear, Judge Jan comes boiling out of her chambers, robes flapping and eyes rolling. She’s eager to condemn. And wow, is she handy with the snarky remarks. The helicopter parents and the lawnmower parents and the screeching, whining, demanding parents would think twice if they only knew how Judge Jan’s wit will wither them once they leave the room.

Judge Jan feels entitled to her opinions. After all, hasn’t she raised her children to successful adulthood? If only these benighted people would raise their adolescents in the same way that she did, well, then they would . . .

. . . they would be raising their kids twenty years ago, before smart phones and Snapchat and classroom laptops. Before oxycontin and sexting and vaping. Before 9/11 and Isis and an endless war. Before the country was ready to split apart at its ideological seams.

They would be raising their young ones in the same culture their parents grew up in, with the same language. More often than not, there would be one main screen in the house upon which everyone, at least some of the time, watched the same thing. They would have built-in touch points, commonalities that would not be the luxury of those families with enough disposable income and time to create them.

Judge Jan doesn’t consider any of that. She has conveniently lost sight of just how bewildering and terrifying it is to be a parent of a teen or a pre-teen today. It doesn’t occur to her that parents turn into helicopters or lawnmowers or even screamers not because they’re stupid and uncaring, but because they care so desperately, and are so daunted by the realities their vulnerable children have to face way too soon.

And when people are overwhelmed by things beyond their control, things that threaten what they most love, sometimes they express their angst in ways that aren’t so pretty. It’s a thing that can happen to human beings of any age. Even moms and dads.

Even, if she’s being honest, Judge Jan. She may have been given a lifetime appointment, but I think it’s time she take the hint and retire.

Is it just me, or do you harbor a self-righteous inner magistrate too? Please share: I won’t judge.


  1. I don’t judge. I analyze and try to understand. Maybe because I grew up in another culture, so I don’t expect to experience what I know. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. It just is.
    My daughter is a Montessori school teacher in Seattle and tells me how she also has more ‘problems’ with the parents than with the kids. Because kids just are (well, she’s with younger ones, 1-3 grade, so still not that conditioned yet).
    It is incredible how we are conditioned to conform. I am blessed that I grew up in the country in Denmark unfolding naturally I would say but also, naive and very green when I left home. However, I developed a strong sense of self which has benefitted me and that I’m happy about today.

    • You had a fortunate upbringing, certainly. I would love to say that I don’t judge. The most I can say with real honesty is that I am getting better at catching myself when I judge.

  2. Oh, boy, do I judge! My father was a perfectionist and unfortunately, I inherited that trait. I am very hard on myself, but also insanely demanding of others. I struggle mightily with this character flaw (judging, much?) but must admit to a lot of failure (and again!)

    Many years ago, a psychologist asked me, “Anni, why do you have to be so perfect? Why can’t you just slog through the mud down here with the rest of us?” That woke me, and I really do try to back off and ease up and let go (but don’t even get me started on forgiveness, because I have been on a Promethean quest with that boulder for decades and I still find myself back down at the bottom of a mountain with a giant rock on my foot).

    I lack patience and am relieved I never had children (except for my lovely stepson whom I met when he was already 8) because the noisy, indulged, tantrum throwing, misbehaving brats that are wrangled around me by mothers who have cultivated either supreme patience or selective deafness (or both) would drive me INSANE. How do they stand it? And I take a deep breath and remember that MY mother had to deal with ME as a youngling, which was certainly a challenge, if not a nightmare. After all, she knew I was going to be an actress by the age of three, when I was already a full fledged Drama Princess. So…

    I seek to admire the fortitude of the parents around me, and just try to dodge their oblivious kids as they dash around me. But then I recall my dear departed friend, who was so severely injured by a middle schooler swinging a backpack that sent her flying into the playground asphalt that she never fully recovered from her injuries and the subsequent disabilities and the ultimately deadly secondary hospital infections she acquired. I ache from missing her in my life, and I resent the clueless brat who was cause of her demise.

    I struggle to be understanding and forgiving. But sometimes the best I can do is simply bite my tongue, give a wide berth to parents and kids, try to admire anyone willing to undertake the mission of birthing and raising children, even though I wish everyone would STOP because our overpopulation of Earth is a crime against nature…

    Oh, there I go, judging again. I’ll just shut up now.

    • Your friend’s experience is horrifying.

      As for judging again . . . it’s tough to let that go, and I think it can only be done in increments. If only it didn’t feel so righteous, and lend such a seductive illusion of power . . . sigh.

      However, I have NO problem with having high standards for behavior — just to be clear!

      • Yeah, and the righteous part really kicks in for me when it comes to forgiveness. Is indignation the only thing we are allowed to feel righteously? And I meant Sisyphian, not Promethean, of course. We can go into those chained up issues later. So much for commenting late at night after driving back from Berkeley after seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2!

  3. I am ashamed to admit, I do harbor an inner judge. I think it is my way of building myself up by bringing someone else down, which we all know, is a strategy doomed to failure. I have my inner judge under control, for the most part, and don’t allow her to see the light of day very often, but when I do, hoo, boy!
    Your article reminded me of a letter to the editor of our local paper I read yesterday where the writer condemned “haters” of our president as a cancer on our nation. She wrote that we (I am including myself in the group being attacked) “perfectionists” have it coming, that we have stored up a pile of hate, and that even though she didn’t agree with everything Barack Obama did, she never vented her hate publicly. She then went on to quote scripture warning that God should judge people, not other people. Wait….isn’t that exactly what SHE was doing? Judging others? It seems like there is a verse somewhere about removing the plank out of your own eye… Ugh!

  4. To whichever Jan I am addressing! As always I admire you ability to stand back and catch yourself in what I at least consider a normal human response to unreasonable behavior. Granted children today are growing up in a very different world from the one we (and our parents) experienced As a. grandmother of five I know all too well the pressures on those children’s parents. However in my book rudeness is inexcusable either from adults or children and I think you had every reason to be upset with those parents who resort to the kind of tactics intended to bully or intimidate someone I know to be an eminently reasonable and fair person. As far as I am concerned your generous “excuse note” on their behalf doesn’t cut it.

    • I do so love that you have my back, Susan! And I agree that rudeness is never acceptable and that it does nobody any good to accept it. But as unpleasant as hysterical and/or rude behavior is, while we may not put up with it we can at least try to consider where it might be coming from.

      Alas, it is also true that a few, thankfully rare, people are just . . . jerks.

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