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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Tween Boys: What's Normal?

Danielle and David live across the street from each other, but sometimes it seems as if the eleven-year-olds are worlds apart.

Danielle is quiet and introspective. She loves to gossip with her girlfriends, and most of the talk centers around boys.

David, on the other hand, is boisterous, doing anything for attention. He likes to be active and with his friends. Though he'll admit to enjoying the idea of a girlfriend, he is shy when Danielle and her friends attempt to flirt. He and his friends will desert the girls for a pick-up game of basketball, leaving them to their teen magazines and rock star heart throbs.

Who is this animal, the middle school boy? He's a creature in flux. Many changes — physical, emotional, social and intellectual — take place during those years between ten and fourteen. Is there any wonder why a parent is left shaking his or her head, wondering just how to care for this ever-changing creature?

How to Recognize Him

Sure, you think you'd know your son anywhere. But that cute little boy you sent to elementary school will be gone in the blink of an eye. Physical changes occur more quickly during adolescence than any other time in your child's life (with the exception of his first year). During this time, your "tadpole" will be sprouting legs and hopping away from you, but not without a lot of awkward times in between.

So what's normal for boys 10 to 14 years of age? Just about everything! During this period, expect to see:

  • Rapid, though irregular, physical development. During this period, the term "growth spurts" really earns its name. As a result, expect peers to be physically different than your son, because of uneven spurts of development. During the years of greatest growth (which differ by individual), an adolescent boy may add up to four inches to his frame. "A middle school age boy typically has yet to have a growth spurt, so he could still be the same size in seventh grade as he was in fifth," says Harry Harrison, author of Father to Son: Life Lessons on Raising a Boy.
  • Increased interest in the body, its functions and its care. Now's the time when old anatomy or biology text books may suddenly appear in your son's room.
  • An increase in awkwardness. Clumsiness is often due to bone growth proceeding muscle growth. (Don't worry, he'll outgrow it. Just give it time for the muscles to catch up!)
  • Girls in this age group usually develop more quickly than boys do. If your son is still playing dodge ball while his female classmates are practicing the latest dances, don't tell him to "act his age." He is.
  • Don't be surprised if he's suddenly concerned with things that didn't bother him before. No, not nuclear destruction or global warming — the really important thing to boys in this age group (especially as they grow older) is their personal appearance. An extra ten pounds may suddenly become cause for embarrassment, while a previously ignored pimple will now seem like the kiss of death.
  • A "cracking" voice is another sure sign of growth. As the voice box or larynx grows, a boy's voice may crack or change pitch even in mid-sentence! Once the voice box is fully developed, the boy's voice will be lower and deeper than it had been in childhood.
  • Pubic hair will begin to sprout, and hair on the body, arms and legs will darken and increase. Many boys will have the beginning of a mustache on the upper lip though most begin shaving before anyone ever notices.
  • Of course, adolescence is known as a time leading to reproductive maturity. Physically, a boy will notice the growth of his genitals. Increased testosterone is responsible for muscle growth, facial hair, and other male characteristics.

An "Insider's" Guide

Of course, not all of the changes going on during adolescence are physical. The change in appearance is only a mere reflection of the changes going on inside the middle school boy. 

One change a parent may notice is an increased desire for privacy. Although parents may be concerned that a sudden desire for privacy indicates the boy has something to hide, experts say it is a normal sign of increased maturity. "The realization that some things should remain private or personal is a healthy sign," says Dr. Richard LaMonica, a Roslyn Heights, New York psychologist who has done extensive work with boys this age. 

Most boys find this to be a confusing time socially. They would like to remain individuals, but still want to fit in with peers. They are very peer conscious and feel safe within the confines of a group. Therefore, participation in team sports is valued. During this time, boys tend to pull away from parents and, for the first time, turn to other adults for advice. Bonds with teachers, counselors and coaches are stronger at this time than at any other.

Girl Talk

And what about the opposite sex? "Girls are much more socially advanced. They're typically calling boys at this age, whose idea of a conversation are a few 'yeahs,' 'nos' and 'maybes'," says Harrison, the father of two sons and an "adolescence survivor." 

"We may act like we aren't interested in girls, but we are," says seventh grader, Derek. "We're just not as interested as they are!"

"Some boys are loners in the truest sense of the word," says Harrison. "Other boys may pick on them. Some crave attention and are class clowns. Others begin to exhibit leadership skills early and have the charisma to have other kids follow them. Typically the boys who are bigger and look older are most popular," he adds. "Chances are very good that if a boy is popular with members of his own sex, he will be popular with the opposite sex."

My Son, The Intellect?

"The one word I'd use to describe boys of this age group is goofy and I mean that in the best possible sense," says middle school principal, Ted Yanke.

Boys tend to be curious and inquisitive, and quite responsive to active, hands-on learning, particularly if it involves interaction with peers. "They're active learners, meaning they learn by doing more often than learn by reading," agrees Mark Dickson, a gym teacher and football coach. Despite all this, most boys do experience a drop in grades upon entering middle or junior high school. One reason is the change in atmosphere, Dickson explains. "They're coming from a one-room, one-teacher situation, for the most part. Suddenly, they have to devise schedules, change classes and deal with various teachers. It takes time to adjust."

The boys interviewed for this article agreed. "My grades were good in fourth grade, but dropped when I entered middle school," says Steven, now in seventh grade. "All of my friends began to have a hard time with school work," he adds. "Girls seem to be better with schoolwork."

"Most of the problems at this age are not academic, but instead social and organizational," says middle school principal, Merle Marsh, in the handout 'Middle School Child: Growing Up Isn't Easy.' "Middle school students may do their homework and then forget to hand it in, but they won't forget when they need to phone a friend."

A change in academic environment, added to this shift in priorities, accounts for a temporary dip in grades.

So What's A Parent To Do?

How can you assure that your son will survive and even thrive during this confusing time of change in his life? Harrison offers the following suggestions:

  • Strive to have a happy home.
  • Don't yell and scream at others in the household.
  • Teach respect for family members, teachers and authority.
  • Quickly and mercilessly remove bad influences from your son's life.
  • Enforce strict curfews.

"I made a point to be home for breakfast and dinner, to spend time with them on weekends, and to coach their teams," Harrison explains. "We demanded respect, and we respected them. They knew they were loved, but there was still a line that couldn't be crossed."