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Radical Acceptance

by Young Un, Middle School Head
In the face of unprecedented challenges to their generation, Middle School children need radical acceptance.  Here's why.


Conferences are around the corner, on November 8th and 9th to be specific. As different as each student is from one another, most conferences follow a general pattern: parents/guardians share information and anecdotes about their children’s experience at school; teachers share their point of view; positives and areas of growth are communicated; and, a plan is established. This pattern makes some sense. In a division that prides itself on knowing its students, a rich exchange of information, anecdotes, and data should be the rule. But what can get lost in conferences, and the rest of the year is a term I borrowed from pop psychology: radical acceptance.

I’m not a fan of pop psychology but I do like the notion of radical acceptance when applied to our work raising young adolescents. More than ever, middle schoolers need radical acceptance. They are bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that they are too thin, too fat, too lazy, too neurotic, too screen-obsessed, and not attractive enough. Just a cursory glance at social media advertising or marketing from brick and mortar stores reveals these trends. And if we were to read the transcripts - thank goodness they don’t exist -  for how we sometimes talk about our kids we’d see that they reveal a culture inclined towards ungrounded criticism and unrealistic expectations. If I were to mention “screen time” to a group of parents/guardians of middle schoolers, the conversation would almost inevitably raise concerns that kids don’t know how to talk to each other or don’t know how to socialize. There’s no doubt that some early teens have missed social opportunities due to screens, but there are countless and daily examples of nuanced and complex social face-to-face interactions. I have heard older students talk about self-imposed tech restrictions and media fasts. I think there’s a vast and interesting grey area between our worst fears (i.e. complete and total screen addiction) and our most unrealistic Luddite hopes. That gray area deserves our careful attention.

Radical acceptance embraces the idea that adolescent behavior is largely determined by a potent mix of cognitive development (some facets not being “finished” until kids are in their 20s), large-scale political and cultural trends, market influences (the teen demographic has $80B of spending power according to some sources), effective and ineffective parenting, and individual choice. A radical acceptance point of view is also aware that our intelligent and sensitive kids witness, on a daily basis, politicians, celebrities, and athletes behaving unethically and hypocritically. (They also notice when we adults have our phones at the dinner table.)  It also understands that these environmental factors do not excuse Joe or Jane from missing six homework assignments or habitually arriving late to class after recess. In any era, these lapses are mostly inexcusable. While it can be foolish to compare one generation’s woes to another, I do firmly believe that today’s kids, especially those who are not in majority groups, face unprecedented challenges, some frightening and existential.

What impresses me so much about Wheeler/Hamilton middle schoolers is in the face of these challenges, they demonstrate impressive sensitivity, intelligence, and decency every day. They are also funny, creative, and talented. And yes, they are flawed just like you and me, and sometimes make awful decisions. But if you were lucky enough to enjoy faculty member/Dean of Students Vanessa O’Driscoll’s eloquent speech and slide show on Family Night, you saw that radical acceptance means loving our kids, warts and all.
216 Hope Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02906-2246
Phone: (401) 421-8100
FAX: (401) 751-7674

Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.