The man I prefer to be doesn't tell kids their problems don't matter

I teach in a middle school, where I work with tweens, a fascinating segment of the population whose defining characteristic is the tendency to dramatize things. A fight with a friend can be the end of the world; a mediocre quiz grade is the end-all be-all of human worthlessness.

As a caring, nurturing soul who wants both to ease their pain and run to the bathroom quickly before my next class begins, I naturally look for ways to make my students feel better when these situations arise. With the perspective that life experience brings me, I’ve become a good judge of which problems are Today problems, This Week problems, This Year problems, and Lifetime problems. And when I can, I want to tell these kids, “Good news! This is a Today problem. Or, at worst, a This Week problem. It’s like strep throat; it’ll hurt for a while, but you’ll be over it in no time.”

I want to say, “This won’t matter in a year.”

I want to, but I won’t.

It matters now

Because however juvenile the issue or how fleeting its impact, it matters now. And when you’re young and in distress, now and forever can seem synonymous.

If you were walking through a winter storm without a coat, freezing and shivering, it’s true that the discomfort you’re feeling now won’t matter in five months. But it matters now. I wouldn’t dismiss your need for a coat right now, and I won’t dismiss a kid’s concern over whatever their temporary stressors are just because I have the benefit of decades of hindsight to predict what will matter in the long run.

And kids don’t want me to impress them with my Solomon-esque wisdom. They want me to listen. They want me to validate that, yes, your problem does suck — maybe it’s severe family or health issues, maybe it’s the case of the missing water bottle — and I’m sorry you’re dealing with it, but I know you’re a strong kid, and you’ll be OK.

If they ask for advice on how to deal, I give it to them. If I need to refer them to a counselor or call in outside help, I do that, too. But my perspective on the scale of the problem is largely irrelevant.

To them, these problems matter.

And that means how I respond matters, too.

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