Surprising Differences In Middle School Boys From 20 Years Ago

I have worked in camps, schools and coached over many, many years. Perhaps because I had a “pause” in working with kids these differences are more obvious to me, but here are some changes I have seen over 20 years.
1. Open Affection: I don’t think this is because I am a grandparent and view the world differently. I have worked with Chinese and American middle schoolers and today it seems to be “OK” to display affection between parent and the middle schooler. And I don’t just mean a quick kiss, which has always been OK. I mean arms wrapped around and holding kids, boys included, in public. Twenty years ago this would have caused great angst for the middle school boy. (Yes, some boys still don’t like it, but affection is far more prevalent today.)

2. Eye Glasses:  Around 8th grade they still get contacts but today’s boy proudly wears eyeglasses. They are even a fashion statement. And I might add that today’s “cool” glasses were yesterday’s geeky glasses. Oh, how times change.
3. Cartoon Clothing: It is completely acceptable! Even “cool.” When did this happen???? Possibly due to the rise of the comic hero movies? I have no idea – but they wear all kinds of cartoon clothing – especially shorts and socks.
4. Less Slang Speech: It used to be hard to understand middle school boys and all their slang. But today, boys are very diversified as to what they watch and are interested in. I think this has cut down the amount of “middle school slang” which previously was derived by popular TV shows or the X-Games “cool” sports slang.
5. Phones: Nearly every middle school boy has a phone or at least an iPod Touch which can text when connected. (iPod Touch owners ask their friends to make their phones a hot spot for a few minutes so they can text.) Twenty years ago no boy had one.
6. Brand Names: They are now more than just what you wear on your feet. Today’s boy has to have EVERYTHING be a brand name. Even his watch, phone, and underwear. Sheesh.
7. Briefs Are Back: Talk about underwear, getting boxers in middle school used to be a rite of passage, but times change. OK, so working with kids in sports and camps, it is no secret what type of underwear they have on. Twenty years ago a kid would rather die than wear briefs. Or maybe better put – a kid would die if he was wearing briefs. Now 20 – 30% of the boys have on briefs. This really shocked me, and I have two theories as to why. Perhaps this group of kids places more importance on brand names than actual styles so if your briefs are brand name and that is what you prefer – then have at it. Or perhaps it is because they actually change in front of each other far less than in years past so the type of underwear you have on is less of an issue. Who knows why, but they are back for sure. And another % wear boxer briefs so the all mighty “must have” boxer no longer has its strong hold on middle school boys. One note. Back in the day if a boy had on “whitey tighty” undies it was because his parents made him. Recently in talking with a dad, he told me he made his son change over to wearing boxers so he would not be a geek. Apparently now it is the boxer wearing kids who do not have a choice.

8. Open About Emotions: Today’s boy is very willing to talk about his emotions, especially fears. Even about his fears of becoming a man. OK, this one may actually be because I am a grandfather and look less intimidating and kids generally love their grandparents. But in the last few years, I have had two boys tell me they are concerned because they have not yet hit puberty. (Both times their openness shocked me.) Several times boys have openly stated that they are afraid of something. Years ago it was not common for a middle school boy to openly talk about a fear. Yes, in private and after some relationship building they would finally open up, but today’s boy seems very willing to quickly open up in this way.
Some Things That Are The Same:

1. They still are obsessed with “winning” and proving themselves – wanting respect.

2. Any innuendo, slight reference or mention of anything sexual or “private” body part brings on a ridiculous reaction.

3. Boys entering puberty still get angry or cry for just about any and even irrational reasons.

4. Boys still bump and bang and hang all over each other.

For better or for worse, times change. And that includes middle school boys. But, looking at the list I would say some areas of boyhood have improved for the better. Not all, but some. Parents have quite the job raising boys. May God bless you in this job, no matter the times, this raising boy business is a real challenge!


Christian, husband, father, grandfather, and educator who finds it a privilege to blog with his daughter and daughter-in-law. My desire is to support Christian parents and help boys be understood and appreciated.

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