How to Foster Your Middle Schooler's Blossoming Independence

How to Foster Your Middle Schooler's Blossoming Independence

In this continued conversation from ep. 114, special guest Andrea Thorpe and host Janna Koch pick up on part two of their discussion about homeschooling middle schoolers. These years don't have to be a season of gritting your teeth and white knuckling through. You can actually thrive when you shift your mindset from controlling your teens to preparing them for the next phase of life. Learn how to handle mistakes (theirs and yours), how to react to their bids for autonomy and alone time, and how to guide them into better decision making without using the phrase "I told you so." 

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Podcast Transcript

Janna Koch (00:36):

Welcome to Homeschool Your Way. I'm your host and BookShark's community manager, Janna Koch. This episode is part two of homeschooling middle school. My guest is author, speaker and homeschool mom, Andrea Thorpe. Andrea is a mom of three girls, one of which is graduated and thriving in college. Her middle daughter is currently homeschooled and dual enrolled at their local community college and like myself, her youngest is a homeschooled middle school student. If you miss the first half of our conversation, go to to catch up. There you will find over a hundred episodes to help you homeschool your way.


Let's jump in for the rest of Andrea's story. In today's episode, we are going to be talking about homeschooling middle schoolers, not how to just survive, but we are going to talk about how you can thrive in your home while homeschooling middle schoolers.


So if I'm having a disagreement with one of my girls and there's a lot of emotions and then you get ego in there and they think I'm always right and I think I'm pretty much always right. So there's that, but when I stop and say, "What's my heart? My heart is not to control you. My heart is not to be a taskmaster. My heart is to see you succeed. So if we can come to an agreement and you can show me how you want to try something in order to succeed in a different way then I could even fathom, then I need to be willing to allow that to happen," right?

Speaker 1 (02:15):


Janna Koch (02:16):

But if I can only envision that it's only going to work out one way, that's not life, that's not being real either. So again, it's this weird transition time of everybody's kind of pulling and pushing and it can be done in such a beautiful way to capture this idea of building creativity and critical thinking and not taking it personally that they're questioning the way I... "It's worked for me. Why wouldn't it work for you this way?" but the older I get, the more I realize, oh my gosh, it's not just one way.

Andrea Thorpe (02:52):

No, it's not and I like what you said about how it's not about controlling. I like to think of it more as preparation, "I'm not trying to control you. I'm trying to prepare you for what's going to happen in the future," and we want them to be free to make mistakes at home so that they can learn and not have to make those same mistakes outside the safety or the comfort of family. Make those mistakes here with us where people are going to speak to you in a loving manner, where people are going to gently correct you, gently set you back on the proper path because when you get out into the real world, people may not do that. So preparation rather than control, that's a good point.

Janna Koch (03:36):

And then letting those consequences happen because let's talk about that. Sometimes it's so much easier to just stop it before it happens because how much work it's going to take to clean up, whether it's something as simple as spilling a cup of water, we can see it happening, we want to stop it from happening, but then it's the logical consequences that are such a good teacher and they can't get mad at us.

Andrea Thorpe (04:10):

I like that part. They can't get mad at us, but your point is a good one. Sometimes we have to let them mess up with the sole intent of letting them see the consequences for the choices that they've made. And sometimes they get into this place where... I hear a lot at my house, "I can do it. I know what I'm doing," and I'm fighting urge to say, "No, you don't. I can see that this is going to happen, that's going to happen, this is going to be a problem," but I have to learn to zip the lip and throw away the key for a little bit and let them make those mistakes.


And when they do make the mistakes, this is the important thing, that we are not there saying, "Told you. If you had listened to me, this never would've happened." Again, that's that point of not controlling, but preparing. When they make those mistakes and things don't go the way that they wanted to or the way that they expected them to, and they don't turn out the way they thought they would, for us to be able to make ourselves available for them to come to and feel comfortable talking about the mistakes that they made.


So for me, that looks like asking questions and not in a condescending way. "I know you said we're planning to set your schedule this way. How did that work out for you last week?" And now I can see that she might be stressed, but I didn't say, "How did that work out for you last week? You look really, really stressed." My question just is, "How did that work out for you? I know you took control of that schedule and that's the way you decided you wanted it to be. How did that work out for you?" allowing her to feel free to tell me how things worked out. Now these are middle schoolers, sometimes you'll get, "It was fine," but other times you'll get the truth, the real explanation and when they explained to you what they thought, "Oh, I thought it was going to be like this."


Then that's your opportunity to ask more questions, "It's interesting. Why did you think that?" Not saying, "Why did you think that because you should have known when I told you before," just, "Why did you think that was going to be the way?" and then if the time is right saying, "Did you want to talk about it? I have a couple ideas? Did you want to hear what my suggestions were?"


And sometimes the answer is, "No, Mom, I don't want to hear your suggestions," and that's okay too, as long as it's said with respect. Sometimes she goes back to the drawing board and figures it out herself, which is the best feeling ever, but then there are other times where later on she'll come back and be ready to say, "I wasn't ready to talk about it then, but can you help me with this?" and the bonus of that part is with that middle school time and that early high school time is they feel like they're in control. It's not us who's telling them what to do. They're the ones who get to say and get to come and give direction.


Now, if it's something really problematic, no middle school mom is going to watch their kid flounder and just struggle, but as much as possible, we can ask questions and guide them and give them directions after they fail because you know, some of the best lessons I've learned in my lifetime have come because I have messed up big time. And we can't, as parents, replicate that. Sometimes we need to just let life do what life does and then help our kids pick up the pieces.


You know what I mean. I'm not talking about with big, huge decisions, but as they're trying to fit themselves in, especially as they're dealing with their peers, that's another time where things can get a little bit funny because I'll say, "Well, how is so and so doing? I haven't heard her name come up in conversation lately. How is she?" And then just through that you find out there was some kind of disagreement or some kind of problem. "Oh, well do you have any plans to work that out?" Those type of things where you're just asking the questions and not saying, "Well, this is what you should do. You should pick up the phone, you should do this, you should do that," and not me picking up the phone to call the child's mother and say, "Hey, did you notice that there's a problem between my daughter and yours." Letting life do what life does and just being there to guide them, that's helpful.

Janna Koch (08:51):

I think it all comes back to that idea of being okay with being uncomfortable because all of these things that we talked about, it's uncomfortable. We don't want our children to fail, we don't want our children to have pain, we don't want our children to not be liked by somebody. We have all these things that it's tempting to try to create a utopia for our children, but it is almost disabling them from being able to move on to the next phase of their life where they will be independent. So as much as my heart breaks when I see my middle schooler in tears about a missed assignment or a struggle with a friend, I really have to control my own emotions instead of, "Come here baby girl. Mama's going to make it all better for you" Don't worry about a thing."

Andrea Thorpe (09:48):

I know.

Janna Koch (09:48):

It's sitting there and letting them cry and just holding them and saying, "Yeah, that doesn't feel good, does it and I'm sorry," but it's something that I don't like. It doesn't feel natural because you still look at them. And remember when they had the husky voice and they would say certain cute things. Like my daughter used to call sunscreen skunscreen. They're not quite the height of a young adult. So even that struggle for parents to look at that middle schooler, early high schooler and say, "Okay, I want to treat you like I did when you were an elementary child, a younger child, but I have to restrain my own feelings to help you become everything that you were created to be."

Andrea Thorpe (10:42):

Yeah, and that can be challenging. But as you were saying that, it made me think of something else. Another point that popped into my head was just making sure that when life is teaching our kids those lessons, that our kids recognize that we've messed up too, you know what I mean? For you to say, "Oh, I know that doesn't feel good," the natural question is, "Well, how do you know, Mom that it doesn't feel good?" "Oh, I could tell you a story or two about a time when this happened," and that does a couple things. It helps our kids be able to see that the problem that they're facing is not a problem that only affects them, that it affects them and their peers. Whether their peers are saying so or not, their peers are dealing with those same things, but at the same time, this is a situation that we as moms have dealt with before.


We know what it's like to not be included in something, we know what it's like to be left out, we know what it's like to feel embarrassed and that's why another thing about these middle school years in the parenting is this is a good time for us to start being more real with our kids and letting them know, "Hey, I've been there before. I know what it means to feel the way you're feeling," and we can start to share as appropriate some of those times in our lives where we really, really messed up. And they can see, "You messed up at age 12, Mom, but look, you're here today and you're doing okay." We can overcome those things.


Our kids in middle school really need to see parents, not just as parents, that's the first hat we wear, the parental hat, but that we're also people and we've messed up and those were the times where my daughter might be crying about something or she might be upset about something and I can say, "Man, I hate to see you upset this." It's okay to tell them that, "It breaks my heart to see that you're really upset about this," and then, "That kind of reminds me, can I share something with you?" That's what I do, I ask a question, "Can I share this with you?" because sometimes they don't want to hear it.


But most of the time my kid will say, "Yeah, Mom, you can share," and I can tell them a story about something I did in high school or something I did in middle school and the lesson that I learned from that. And many times it makes them feel better because they see their moms as women who have it together. This is the mom who knows everything. This is the mom who fixes everything. This is the mom who has everything in place. I cannot believe that this woman is the one who was embarrassed in middle school when X, Y, and Z happened. It's a good time for us to start really getting real with our kids and just letting them know that we're not perfect, that we've messed up too. They appreciate that sometimes

Janna Koch (13:53):

And that these things don't end our world. It's not the end of the world and not to use that phrase, because that could be not taking into perspective the pain that they're in. I want to be like, "Really? Does this really matter?" I've got all these other things I'm dealing with, and it's tempting to be like, "Oh, it's not the end of the world. Just move on." Right?

Andrea Thorpe (14:15):


Janna Koch (14:16):

But on the flip side of the coin to say, "Hey, I hear you. I get it, but guess what? This will pass, this will fade. You will continue on and probably make bigger mistakes," Let's be honest, right, and I say to my kids all the time, "Well, now how not to do it," simple as that.

Andrea Thorpe (14:40):

I love that, "Now you know how..." I'm writing that down.

Janna Koch (14:43):

Yeah. I get kind of from a Disney movie.

Andrea Thorpe (14:45):

"Now how not to do it."

Janna Koch (14:45):


Andrea Thorpe (14:47):

That's a good one, "Now you know how not to do it." It really does-

Janna Koch (14:50):

Yeah, because you don't know. You don't know what you don't know. I think sometimes we project onto our children to have this idea that they should know. They should know and so when they make a mistake, I think they kind of pile on their own guilt like, "Oh, I should have known," and I look at my kids sometimes and I say, "Why do you think you should have known that? Nobody thinks that you should have known that. You've never experienced that before, but now you know how not to do it."


Andrea Thorpe (15:19):

It's those life lessons that will help them out. And when they see the mistakes that they've made... I see my kids also talking to one another about it, "Look, this is what I messed up on. Do not do this," and I can see even with my college student speaking to her younger sisters, just about how mistakes that she made and how things worked out for her.


I like your point about how the world is not going to stop spinning because we made a certain mistake and they do need to be able to see that and if we teach them those things now right here at our homes, we don't have to worry about them flipping out at work when they're on their job or anything like that.


I remember my daughter got a job a couple years ago and she was working at a grocery store and she had that terrible experience of a customer yelling at her and doing it publicly in front of other people and I remember I went to pick her up and she came out of the store with this brave face on, but as soon as she got in the car, there was just tears and the frustration. And she said, "Mom, I was just embarrassed and I can't believe she treated me that way." So I asked her, "Well, how did you respond to it? What was your response?" And she told me and I said, "Do you feel like that was the appropriate response?"


We talked about that and then what I gave her time to do? I gave her time to say... she said, "What I wanted to say, Mom, was this," and I gave her that time. I asked her, "Well, I'm just wondering what exactly, sweetheart, what would you have said?" And she told me what she would've said and after she told me, I said, "Well, how come you didn't go and say that? Why didn't you, that's what you wanted to say?"


And there was a great discussion that we had about self-control, the need to keep our job and how to still maintain our dignity when people are not treating us in a kind way because you know what I wanted to do, I wanted to park my car, leave my kid in the backseat, and I wanted to march into that store and let somebody have it. But that's the worst thing you can do as a middle school mom and I would not have done that. I didn't, but that mom need, that need that we have, that desire that we have to want to just protect them and fix things for them, we can't always do it and we, little by little, just have to take our hands off and just be there to guide them.

Janna Koch (18:06):

Well, and I think this age is a perfect practice ground. So we're transitioning and we're recognizing that we're transitioning with them and I don't care how many times you have transitioned, just like when you give birth, you have to transition again, right?

Andrea Thorpe (18:24):


Janna Koch (18:25):

It doesn't matter that you transition with your first child. It's kind of the same concept. We have to be mindful that with each child we will transition with them and if we start at these ages allowing them the space and asking them questions so that they start to be mindful, it can only propel us into the next phase and it can only do us all good if we start at this phase.

Andrea Thorpe (18:53):

Yeah, I like what you said just now about giving them space. That's an important thing because when they're small, at least in our household, we were together all of the time. We just always did stuff together. No one was smothered or anything like that, but it was just the family dynamic. We would take family trips together, we would go to the library together, we would take walks together, we would do this. And I remember this was during COVID, my middle schooler came to me and she said, "I want to take a walk," and here's me, "Okay, I'll go get my jacket. I'm ready to go with you," and she said to me, "I don't want you to come with me. I want to go by myself," and inside I'm thinking to myself. "We always go walking together," and I went right away, "Why doesn't she want me to walk? Did I say something? Did I do something? Am I embarrassing her?"


It was none of those things. My kid wanted to walk by herself, and I understand that because sometimes I want to do things by myself. And again, back to your point in the beginning where we were talking about taking things personally, she actually said to me, "Mom, it's nothing personal. I just want to take a walk by myself and listen to music." So I let her go out and she walked by herself and she had a good walk and she came back and she was ready to go do whatever it was that she wanted to do. But if I had said, "Nope, nope, nope, I'm coming with you," what a mess that would've been. She would've felt like I was smothering her. It's not like she said, "Mom, I want to drive to California." She just wanted to take a walk around the neighborhood.


So when we give them space to do what it is they want to do, I think it does a couple things. It allows them time to think on their own, but it also shows that we respect them and that we trust them. When my daughters are off and away and they're doing something, I'm not there thinking, "Oh, I wonder what she's doing in room. Is she doing this? Is she doing that?" No, she's in a room because she wants to have a quiet time, she wants to be away from the rest of the family. So giving our kids the space that they need is really, really helpful because sometimes it almost serves as a reset. I remember we were talking before about naps and how just having that short 30 minute power nap can help to reset your brain.


When my kids are able to go off by themselves and just do things, that helps them too and it gives them time to just really get comfortable with being by themselves and not always having to have a phone in their hand or having to talk to somebody. Sometimes it's just good to just sit and giving them the space to do that and just do what it is they want to do for a short amount of time away from other people, that's valuable. They need space as they get older and as moms, at least me, I'm going to just think about myself, I'm not going to talk about anybody else, but I just want to smother them all the time and just, "Tell me what you need. What is it that you want? What is it that I can do for you?" And my kids are like, "Mom, I want you to leave the room and close the door and let me breathe," and I'm not upset about it anymore. It's good for us to let them have that space.

Janna Koch (22:20):

It reminds me of when babies are at certain stages of development and when a mom leaves the room, a child, at some point, doesn't believe that mom exists outside of what they can see. I don't know why no one ever told me as a parent that I was going to actually revisit that phase because I'll be sitting around going, "Wait, my kids don't live or breathe because I'm in the room. They have their own thoughts, their own goals, their own ideas," and Andrea, I know this sounds so dumb, but it has been groundbreaking for me.

Andrea Thorpe (22:59):


Janna Koch (22:59):

And I feel like I should've known this. I don't know why it just comes to me and I'm like, "Oh wait. They're thinking right now and it is independent of me and it has nothing to do with me," but that's a weird, I don't know if you experience that, if I'm the only parent that has this revelation like, "Oh wait, just like a baby thinks that when the mom is no longer in the room, the mom no longer exists in her world, not true." Same with my middle schooler. When I am not in the room, she still is existing outside of me and I tell you what, when I started to think through this, I was like, "Janna, why do you act so dumb sometimes? Why is this groundbreaking?"

Andrea Thorpe (23:46):

I think that's just how moms are. I think that's just how moms are in general, but you know what that means though? When we can leave them by themselves and they can do things on their own because we've given them space, we are with them. We're up here in their heads with them. We're not necessarily in the same room, but my kids, they'll do things and they'll be like, "I heard you. You weren't even here when this was going on, but I heard you inside of my head." So we're always with them, but it's that physical part that we have to get used to, knowing that because we've laid the foundation in the earlier years, in those elementary years, hopefully we were listening to our kids, we were talking with our kids, we were sharing our hearts with our kids, so even now, we're not in the room with them, but we are there with them. They've listened to us, they know what they've been taught and we can't underestimate how far that will go. But I agree, it's a weird feeling.

Janna Koch (25:50):

And I think another thing that is going to help parents thrive instead of just surviving this time is coming to that recognition that this was the end goal. We wanted to produce independent producing members of society, that was the goal. And I feel as though, for me personally, sometimes I forget that that's my goal because up until this point we do everything with them. They wake up, we're awake, we feed them, we take them to where they need to go. We're homeschooling, we're schooling with them and then this transition comes and we're like, "Wait a second. You want to do something without me? You want to do something outside of this space that we've created together?" And I have to be mindful that, "Yes, Janna, because that is the goal. She is her own person."

Andrea Thorpe (26:47):

Yeah, that is the goal and we would do a disservice to them if we were constantly holding onto them because then we run the risk of hindering them. They constantly have to turn around and ask us 20 million questions when all we've been doing this whole entire time is getting them ready to just go off and do what it is they need to do. I have that middle schooler now, but I also have the benefit of seeing what it looks like in college because my daughter will call me and she'll be like, "Man, Mom, I am so glad you taught me how to do this," or "Remember we had that disagreement about this? Oh man, I'm so glad we worked it out now," because she sees other people who may not have grown up in the same circumstance that she has grown up in and she's saying, "I'm just glad for the things that you taught me because I'm able to do some things on my own."


It makes me happy to know that she's on a college campus and she's able to survive and she's doing what she needs to do, but the reason she's able to do that is because in middle school she had a safe place to make mistakes, she had someone to listen and give direction as needed, and now she can go off and do that. The good thing about it is you don't even have to wait for it to hit college.


I remember when my middle child was in middle school and there were things that she said she couldn't do, just told me up and down, "I'm never going to be able to do this. This isn't going to be able to work. I can't handle it," and then just to see next year at that same time and I would say, "Remember this time last year when you had this class and your main concern was this, and you were so worried about that?" And she's like, "Oh yeah, that wasn't even a problem. Now this that I'm going through, this is a little bit different," but just being able to watch them.


My mom tells me, because I call her a lot and I talk to her about mothering and stuff and she says, "Your goal right now is to work yourself out of a job in certain areas," and that makes me feel so good. I don't have to sit down beside you from now on while you're doing your homework. I can go put some laundry in or answer an email while you're working on your math and I can come back and check and see how you're doing. So that's a good point as well. That's what we want to do. We want them to be prepared so that when they leave us, they're not falling apart.

Janna Koch (29:23):

And because you've done such a good job of working yourself out of a job, you have opened up time for yourself to reconnect with the Andrea prior to children, you were a teacher and now you are an author. So now you have this time to go full circle and work yourself out of this job, but this job actually helped you be better at your next job.

Andrea Thorpe (29:51):

Yeah, isn't that funny? Isn't that funny how things work? Sometimes when we're in the midst of homeschooling, you have to give up so much of yourself during that time because you're constantly putting other people's needs in front of you. But now that I have kids who are in middle school and high school, they don't need me as much, so I do have time. I have time to write, I have time to go speak and talk to other moms who are just behind me and looking.


I think those moms with kids in elementary and early middle school, look at moms like you and me and think, "Oh my gosh, they have it all together," and I'm like, "No ma'am. No, ma'am, we've learned some things the hard way," and now I have that opportunity to be able to talk to other homeschooling families, talk to other moms, and just share the things that I know, and then also what people want is they want somebody to listen to them. They don't always want advice.


So sometimes when I go to speak, do my thing and then you talk to the people afterwards and they thank you, but there's just stuff they want to get off of their chest and they're glad to hear that you went through it too and you survived, and not just survived, like you said, but are thriving because of it. So that's one thing that makes me happy. And just being able to write. From the time I was in third grade I knew I wanted to be a writer and I was that kind of kid who the teacher would give us our spelling words and we would have to write sentences for them and I thought that was the best thing in the world.


I remember one day I was in third grade, the teacher was giving back the tests and she was talking to another teacher outside the door and she said to the teacher, "This little girl, Andrea over here, oh, my goodness, her spelling sentences are the best. I love reading her spelling sentences every week. She's going to be a good writer one day," And I just remembered just thinking at eight years old, "Oh my goodness, somebody thinks I'm a good writer."


So I journaled all the time, I wrote all the time and when I had an opportunity to write two children's biographies, I was happy because I got to do something I loved, but also, for the first time in a while, I had time to actually focus on those things and do those things.


So to the moms who were sitting here now thinking, "Well, that's nice. Is that time ever going to come?" It does come. And when you're in the midst of things in that day, it doesn't seem like it's going to come, but you will blink and look and be like, "Oh my gosh, they're in high school, they're off getting jobs and doing those things." So you do have that full circle that comes back to allow you to do personal things.

Janna Koch (32:47):

So Andrea, why don't you tell us, what were the two children's books that you have authored thus far?

Andrea Thorpe (32:52):

So the first one that I did is... Well, they're both children's biographies. One of them is called The Story of Jackie Robinson and in the book we talk about his childhood, his work in the civil rights movement, and of course his groundbreaking career in baseball and then the other book that I wrote is about NASA scientist, Katherine Johnson. So that book is called The Story of Katherine Johnson.

Janna Koch (33:19):

And where can our listeners find those stories?

Andrea Thorpe (33:22):

You can go right to Amazon and purchase them. That's the easiest way to do it and I have seen them for sale on Target's website as well.

Janna Koch (33:32):

And something exciting for BookShark is you are currently working on a unit study to go with your Katherine biography.

Andrea Thorpe (33:41):

Yes, I was very excited to have the opportunity to do that because Katherine Johnson's work is just such groundbreaking work and NASA would not be NASA in many ways without Katherine Johnson's influence and her work there. So I am working on the unit study now. It's in progress and it will be done soon. So I look forward to being able to share Katherine Johnson's work, her life and being able to give students activities to help them get to know Katherine Johnson better as well.

Janna Koch (34:13):

And so those who are listening, BookShark offers free unit studies. They're available on our website. So you can go to and look for those unit studies. Andrea, I want to thank you so much for coming on and talking with me and helping me work through some of my own angst about homeschooling a middle schooler.

Andrea Thorpe (34:31):

You are welcome. It's always good when moms can get together and talk about things. It helps us both feel better.

Janna Koch (34:38):

It does and I hope that those who have listened today also feel better and have permission to be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable in this journey of life. Whether you're first time homeschoolers with young children or longtime homeschoolers with older children, it is important to know that you have permission to be you and that you're doing a great job. So we just want to say keep up the good work. Thank you guys. Until next time, bye-bye.