Judith Warner's New Book On Middle School Suggests It Doesn't Have To Be All Bad | WCAI

Judith Warner's New Book On Middle School Suggests It Doesn't Have To Be All Bad

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 15, 2020 3:35 pm

Middle school spans those tween and early teenage years when, for many, puberty hits.

Bullies seem to reign supreme. And we begin to grow into ourselves.

Like most, writer and reporter Judith Warner was once a middle schooler. She's also the mother of two former middle schoolers. In her new book, And Then They Stopped Talking To Me, she investigates why the middle-school years can be so awful — and what we can do to help make them a little bit better.

Interview Highlights

On asking people what words come to their mind when thinking of middle school

Soul crushing. Shattering. A rush of nausea. Any variation on the word misery that you can come up with. By and large, the answers were so powerful. And yet then there were a couple of people who had good memories too. And that was something that was important for me to hold on to and listen to in more detail.

On deciding to write the book

It really grew out of a kind of random thought one day when my daughter was in middle school and I thought, I wonder who the 12-year-olds are who are walking around inside of us looking at the parents. I was surprised, in a sense, by the fact that the kids were very different than I expected. My expectations were really built on my perceptions from when I was much younger. So I expected middle schoolers to be these sorts of monsters. And they weren't. They were just kids.

But the parents seem to have something strange come over them when our kids hit 6th grade or so. And the behavior around me became odder and odder. And I found myself becoming odder, too, in that I felt everything so acutely — everything that was happening to my daughters, you know, the ups and downs. And it struck me that it was a little bit out of whack. And that's when I got to wondering about that, you know, was there something going on inside of us? And that was really the genesis for the book.

On busting many of our stereotypes about middle school

We have these stereotypes and we operate from them and generalize from them. And we have these terrible expectations, basically, that there are bullies, there are mean girls, alpha boys, that they are just basically vehicles of torture to come. And, of course, there are painful things that happen in middle school. There is a lot of meanness that goes on. You know, 7th grade is the year when bullying peaks. But when you're actually looking at these kids as an adult, and not as another middle schooler, you really do see that they are just kids moving through their lives and trying to make the best of a difficult phase of life without the awareness to what they're doing. And that was really eye-opening for me.

On why we separate middle school from other school ages

One of the most fascinating parts of the research for me was looking at the history of how we came to have middle schools and junior high schools before that, and why it is that we take kids — in what is arguably the most difficult phase of their lives — and just sort of lock them together, so that they can drive each other crazy. Other countries don't always do this. There are a lot of other countries, peer nations of ours, that have a division that's more like kindergarten to 6th grade and then 7th through 12th. And there are many educators who believe that that's better.

When the junior high schools came into being at the beginning of the 20th century, it was partly for very good reasons. There was this new awareness that kids around the age of puberty develop all of these fantastic new capacities for learning and thinking and creativity, and that having them in elementary schools wasn't giving the structure, basically, in which all of that could thrive. There was also, at the same time, a sense that these kids were maybe kind of awful, maybe kind of capable of corrupting younger children and that they ought to be separated out. And then there was just the very prosaic issue of overcrowding in schools and the need to make more space, because it's relatively recent that kids of what is now middle school age actually stayed in school, or continued living at home full time, once they hit 11 or 12.

So all of those things came together and created the situation we have now of having kids who are, as you say, in this incredibly difficult, vulnerable, you name it, stage of life, sort of locked up in their own company. And a big part of the problem with that has been, ever since these schools were first created, that a lot of adults just really don't like kids this age — and do, kind of, want to cage them up together so that they can just take out their stuff on one another — and not infect the larger population. But that has not tended to work out all that well.

On starting out generally not liking kids of middle-school age

I did change my mind ... I would say it began with the fact that I had my own children, right? And I did like my own children. And I like their friends. And I found, once again, that the reality of these kids was very, very different from the stereotype.

And then, as I was doing the research, I was talking to teachers who, and middle-school heads, who were talking about how they really love this age group. And we're talking about the good things associated with this age group. And I was realizing, looking back, to my experience as a parent, that all of that was true. That, in fact, those years were an incredibly creative period of time for my daughters. ... But it really was the moment when they came into the passions that carried them through high school and now college afterwards. I also realized that it had been an incredibly creative time for me. I had held on to all the most negative memories of how painful it was. But I had managed, over the years, to forget the fact that middle school was the time — junior high, it was called junior high — when I really seriously started wanting to be a writer, when I discovered a lot of the books that are still my favorite books and that I formed some of the ambitions that really carried me through. ... And my personality was in a lot of ways pretty similar, too.

I also discovered something that I also discovered in the course of reporting, when I was able to contact people I'd been in middle school with, that I was a lot less nice than I remembered. I had really held on to the memory of myself as a victim and had managed to forget — that funny kind of forgetting without forgetting that you do sometimes — that I had brought a lot of my travails onto myself. And also that I hadn't been so wonderful to others necessarily. I wasn't a bully. I didn't lead people in making fun or ostracizing others. But I wasn't so great. And I also discovered that some of the things I remembered people saying about me that I thought were so horrifically unfair and untrue were kind of true.

On a piece of advice she would give middle schoolers

I think that one of the most important pieces of advice is actually for parents and kids, which is that we tend to have such a narrow image of what's normal or OK. And I think that that's true for people at all ages in our society. But it's especially true in the middle-school phase of life because it's so important for kids to feel like they're "of" everyone else. And just like everyone else. I mean, it's the age really when conformity peaks. And unfortunately, parents way too often go along for the ride and want the same things that their kids want and worry enormously if their kids aren't like everyone else. Especially if they aren't like the popular kids — you know, that something is wrong with them.

But what experts have known — and this was so surprising to find when I was doing the historical research ... is that early adolescence is a point when you have enormous variability in terms of where they are maturity wise. And the physical maturity affects their emotional and cognitive maturity. And there's a huge range of normal. And we tend to pass all of these judgments about where kids are. If we say that they're mature, it tends to have a negative sound to it or we say they're immature, it obviously has a negative sound to it. And if we could just recognize that 12-year-olds can run the gamut of looking and seeming like 9- or 10-year-olds or like 14- or 15-year-olds — and that all of that is normal and OK — I think it would make an enormous difference for everyone.

On expecting the worst when her daughter entered middle school

Did absolutely everyone expect the worst? I'm not sure. But it certainly seemed that way. You know, there was a lot of sort of sighing and anticipatory anxiety and a sense of drama brewing and kind of grim faces. I don't think I was proven right. Not because my daughters had such wonderful times, but because I'm not 12 years old. So what happened, the things that happened didn't have the same level, of kind, of horror ... they didn't have the same sort of totalizing reality about them that they have when you are that age yourself. And maintaining that boundary between yourself and your kids at that phase of life is so incredibly important. It's definitely something I struggled with. It is absolutely something the parents around me were struggling with. I don't think any of us were necessarily conscious of it at the time. I mean, I think in general, as parents with kids of whatever age, we don't tend to be conscious of it when our boundaries start to slip. And I think that it's a danger that's particularly acute when we have middle schoolers, because our own memories and feelings from that time of life are so immediate.

On why parents do seemingly crazy things

On the one hand, you have a child who, maybe, just a few months before was sort of happy and light and childlike — and now has the weight of the world on their shoulders. And that can be a really terrifying transition to watch. A lot of parents feel a kind of grief because they feel like they're losing their child. And if they don't have older kids, or they don't have people around them who are sort of reassuring them, they don't realize that the child's coming back. You know, that this is a phase. This is not going to last forever. And also that it's normal.

And then, of course, kids do have a lot of problems at this age. There are the normal range of difficulties that simply come from going through early adolescence. And then there is also the fact that if you have a child who is prone to anxiety or depression, it's going to get worse, most likely, right at that point. In fact, it may show up for the first time at that point if you have a kid with ADHD. It tends to become more acute at that point. It shows up more because the organizational challenges of school are so much harder and also the social demands become so much more complicated. And I think that there is an added pointedness to all of this right now for parents and this generation. Because everything is so anxious-making. We have so many worries about the future and about our kid's ability to succeed. The notion of what goes into being successful has become so narrow because life is hard, because there's so much inequality — because it's so hard to just be middle class or be at the lower end of the upper middle class. Not to mention being low income, that all of this is brought to bear. So if a kid is struggling, it's very easy for all of this to become catastrophized. ... All of a sudden, you don't really have the power to do anything because they don't want to talk to you. So I think that's what makes it so hard and so fraught — and sometimes crazy-seeming parent fear.

On how not to be crazy-seeming parents

You know, with kids of all ages — and it's just that all of the difficulties, these are much more acute at this age — [you need to] take care of yourself and make yourself as mentally healthy as possible so that you have the bandwidth to try to relate to your kids from the part of your brain that is rational, reasonable, able to sort of think things through, rather than from a place of pure emotion — because that's where we always get into trouble.

And the problem is, of course, our emotions are so easily triggered and, sort of, cut so deep when our kids are of middle-school age. So it's that much more difficult to hold on to that. But I think being able to be self-aware, being able to be aware if you're being triggered and then think about what you really want to be saying or doing, who you want to be as a parent, is kind of the basic starting point to be able to do things differently.

On how much of this is universal – transcending class, race, cultures

The question of what was universal and what was culturally specific or class-specific or race-specific was one that was very important to me from the very start — and that I really tried to get at both in my research and talking to experts, and in reading and in talking to people about their middle-school experiences. And what I've found is that there's a great deal that's universal. I mean, puberty is universal. Our emotions are universal. The questions that we ask ourselves when we are of middle-school age having to do with: Who am I? Where do I fit? Where do I rank? Where does my family rank? These really are universals. And there are human universals in there. The question of sort of ranking and hierarchy, those are primate universals, too. Obviously not with the use of language, but we all share these elements and we all share the love for our children and the worries about what happens to them at that point of life, what their future is going to be.

There are all kinds of elements to this that hold up across cultures, across subcultures in the U.S. and also across time, historically. But what is specific is the behavior that accompanies all of this. And also, I think, the degree of nonsense that happens — mostly, of course, when I say nonsense, I'm talking about parent behavior. Some of the excessive presence, helicopter parenting, and also the competitive parenting. And one thing that research has shown, actually, is that mental-health-wise, and in terms of engaging in behaviors we don't want them to engage in, upper-middle-class kids in the U.S. are doing worse than their counterparts who are middle-class or low-income. And that seems to come down to the fact that their [upper-middle-class] communities are very competitive and the value systems in those communities really stress a kind of, "me above everyone else" ... focusing narrowly on what you need to do to succeed and to get where you're going, which necessarily means that you're not thinking about other people. You're not empathetic. And you're not in a universe all that nice, frankly. So I think there's a lot of food for thought there in terms of what we can change and what we can't change — and what we actually want for our kids.

Courtney Dorning edited this piece for radio and Aubri Juhasz produced it. Meghan Sullivan edited it for the web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Middle school - maybe you loved it. Maybe you hated it. Middle school spans those tween and early teenage years when, for many of us, puberty hits, bullies seem to reign supreme, and we begin to grow into ourselves. Well, like most of us, writer and reporter Judith Warner was once a middle schooler. She's also the mother of two former middle schoolers. And in her new book, she investigates why the middle school years can be so awful and what we can do to help make them a little bit better. The book is titled "And Then They Stopped Talking To Me."

Judith Warner, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JUDITH WARNER: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So let me just throw a little word game at you to start because I know you talked to a ton of people for the book. When you asked them to recall and describe their middle school experiences, would you just give us a sampling of the words that they chose?

WARNER: Shattering, a rush of nausea, you know, any variation on the word misery that you can come up with. And yet then, there were a couple of people who had good memories, too. And that was something that was important for me to hold on to and listen to in more detail.

KELLY: What made you decide to dive in and focus on this for a whole book?

WARNER: I was surprised in a sense by the fact that the kids were very different than I expected. My expectations were really built on my perceptions from when I was much younger. So I expected middle schoolers to be these sorts of monsters. And they weren't - they were just kids. But the parents seemed to have something strange come over them when our kids hit sixth grade or so. And I felt everything so acutely, everything that was happening to my daughters, you know, the ups and downs. And that's when I got to wondering about that. You know, was there something going on inside of us? And that was really the genesis for the book.

KELLY: You just touched on so many things I want to follow up on. One is that you had this expectation that middle schoolers would be monsters and they weren't. A lot of our stereotypes about these years, as you lay out in the book, just aren't true when you actually went and reported them out.

WARNER: We have these stereotypes. And, of course, there are painful things that happen in middle school. There is a lot of meanness that goes on. You know, seventh grade is the year when bullying peaks. But when you're actually looking at these kids as an adult and not as another middle schooler, you really do see that they are just kids moving through their lives and trying to make the best of a difficult phase of life. And that was really eye-opening for me.

KELLY: All right. Let's turn to the parents and their point of view. And I will make it personal because I was struck by how you opened Chapter 6. I'll read your words back to you. You write, (reading) when my daughter started middle school, I, like all the other parents I knew, expected the absolute worst.

Really? And I guess I'm wondering, were you proven right?

WARNER: It certainly seemed that way. You know, there was a lot of sort of sighing and anticipatory anxiety and kind of grim faces. I don't think I was proven right, not because my daughters had such wonderful times but because I'm not 12 years old. So the things that happened didn't have the same level of kind of horror, and they didn't have the same sort of totalizing reality about them that they have when you are that age yourself. And maintaining that boundary between yourself and your kids at that phase of life is so incredibly important. It's definitely something I struggled with. It is absolutely something the parents around me were struggling with because our own memories and feelings from that time of life are so immediate.

KELLY: So how can we not be crazy seeming parents?

WARNER: I think the most basic element to doing better is take care of yourself and make yourself as mentally healthy as possible, so that you have the bandwidth to try to relate to your kids from the part of your brain that is rational, reasonable, you know, able to sort of think things through, rather than from a place of pure emotion because that's where we always get into trouble. And the problem is, of course, our emotions are so easily triggered and sort of cut so deep when our kids are of middle school age, so it's that much more difficult to hold onto that.

KELLY: Last thing to put to you, which is this - how much of what you're writing about here is universal? Because you discuss in the book you made an effort to interview people across class, across race, different parts of the country and so on. But it seems true that middle-age angst is something that for a lot of people must feel like a luxury.

WARNER: What I've found is that there's a great deal that's universal. I mean, puberty is universal. The questions that we ask ourselves when we are of middle school age having to do with, you know, who am I, where do I rank, where does my family rank, we all share these elements. And we all share the love for our children and the worries about what their future is going to be. But what is specific is the behavior that accompanies all of this. And also, I think, the degree of nonsense that happens. Mostly, of course, when I say nonsense, I'm talking about parent behavior - some of the excessive presence.

KELLY: The helicopter parenting.

WARNER: The helicopter parenting and also the competitive parenting. And one thing that research has shown, actually, is that mental health wise and in terms of engaging in behaviors we don't want them to engage in, upper-middle-class kids in the U.S. are doing worse than their counterparts who are middle class or low income. And that seems to come down to the fact that their communities are very competitive, and the value systems in those communities really stress a kind of, you know, me above everyone else. So I think there's a lot of food for thought there in terms of what we can change and what we can't change and what we actually want for our kids.

KELLY: Judith Warner, thank you so much.

WARNER: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Her new book is called "And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense Of Middle School." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.