Making Sense of Middle School

Michele Borba September 23, 2020 Comments Off on Making Sense of Middle School
Making Sense of Middle School

Let’s face it, middle school has always been known as a “tough time” for kids and for parents. That’s why I was so excited to read Judith Warner’s new book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School. You may remember Warner as the author of the New York Times bestseller, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. This time she put her energy into dissecting those crucial middle school years. Not only did she review new research on this age group but also interviewed dozens of subjects about their own middle school experience. (They represented a good mix of folks of different zip codes, ages, educational backgrounds as well as racial and ethnics groups). It’s a fascinating read which I highly recommend. Here are selected nuggets from the author.

A Conversation with Judith Warner

Due to the pandemic, many parents are dealing with the unprecedented situation of having middle school students at home all day. Do you have any advice for parents on how to navigate this time as smoothly as possible?

This is an incredibly stressful time for families. Even for those fortunate enough not to be dealing with illness or unemployment, homelessness or hunger, the pressures and anxiety are crippling. The demands on parents are, to my mind, downright cruel—the expectation that they can homeschool kids while trying to home-earn a living is simply crazy. And however bad it is for parents overall, there’s a strong argument to be made that for parents of middle schoolers, the situation is the worst. 

Because early adolescence is such a sensitive period, all the stresses and anxieties of this awful and weird time are hitting middle schoolers extra hard. Everything is out of whack; they live for their friends, and they can’t see them. They’re wired to want more independence from their parents, and they’re stuck at home with them, 24/7. And just when everyone is flooded with anxiety, rattling with uncertainty and struggling to function and focus, they’re being saddled with the worst aspects of school (worksheets!) but without the social contact, with both teachers and peers, that can make learning so rewarding. 

Parents have to give themselves and their middle schoolers a break. They have to recognize that they’re being put in a position to do the impossible: to be teacher, counselor, coach, tutor and afterschool program director all rolled into one, with no training and, of course, no preparation. 

And if that means assignments don’t get done, that grades aren’t great, so be it. Math can always be retaught. Undoing the effects of toxic levels of stress is much, much harder. Prioritize your relationship with your kids above all else.

When it comes to being in middle school, or parenting children of that age, how has the landscape changed since your New York Times bestseller PERFECT MADNESS was published in 2005? 

The advent of the iPhone is the most important change of all. The use of communication technology to further the cause of in-group/out-group social sorting and plain-old meanness is hardly new; iPhones didn’t create middle school cruelty or angst. I think that everyone who went through what was still most commonly called “junior high” in the 1970s and ’80s remembers the nefarious practice of a “friend” calling another friend and getting her to say terrible things about a third friend, who was listening in from another extension. FOMO isn’t new either—you can find junior high girls suffering over the fear of missing out in books and women’s magazines going back at least to the 1940s. (One even wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt about it.) With the spread of smartphones and the proliferation of social media, the difference in the past fifteen or so years is that there’s no escape, ever: middle school buzzes in your pocket, follows you home, lives in your bedroom, and never, ever gives you a break.

How has recent research and an expanded diagnostic vocabulary for adolescent psychology changed our views of middle schoolers? 

We now know—based on technological advances in brain imaging—much of what the most forward-thinking social scientists believed more than a century ago: something new and special happens in the minds of kids right around puberty. We know that early adolescence is a phase of life when kids are capable of taking a great leap forward intellectually: they are eager to learn and hungry for knowledge, curious, filled with a strong sense of injustice, passionate in their interests, and possessed of a wide range of new cognitive abilities. But this expert knowledge, which lay behind the birth of the junior high school right around 1900, was largely ignored throughout much of the 20th century, as junior high schoolers came into being as a new, and largely disliked, breed of human. Today’s middle schoolers have inherited that legacy. It has become all but impossible to separate who they really are and what they are capable of doing from the negative stereotypes that adults have about them. In recent decades, academic researchers have done a great deal of work to try to set the record straight, but it remains extremely difficult to break through the popular view of 11 to 14-year-olds as little monsters enslaved to their “raging hormones.” 

Why do you believe that upper middle class kids are really struggling in our current culture?

This might come as a surprise to readers. After all, wealthier parents have money and, generally, a high level of education, so their kids have access from the start to all the things that set them up for a lifetime of thriving: good schools, quality food and medical care, cultural enrichment, (relatively) stable households, safe neighborhoods, and the expectation that their voices matter and will be respected. At the same time, however, they’re also growing up in communities in which the adults are experiencing class anxiety like never before. That anxiety translates into a widespread feeling that there are no longer any guarantees when it comes to social status, which in turn has led to a narrowing of what’s considered the path to success. That has brought about a huge mental health crisis on college campuses as kids flame out after too many years of burning the candle at both ends. The pressures fueling that crisis are now starting in the middle school years, which is when the college craziness in upper middle class communities begins. There’s a significant body of research demonstrating that the values that most markedly hold sway in upper middle class communities—being competitive, being a winner, looking out for #1 to guarantee personal success at all costs—are psychologically damaging. And they’re especially so to kids in early adolescence.

Has your view of your own middle school experience changed as a result of your work on this book?

My view changed enormously, not just of my middle school experience, but of myself. For a very long time I saw myself purely as having been a mean girl’s victim. Now I know that, while I had at times been victimized, I had sometimes been pretty mean, too. I may have been more guilty of sins of omission (what we’d today call “ghosting”) than of commission (out-and-out bullying), but the dividing line between the two is less solid than it might seem. I understand now that when it came not just to telling but to perceiving my own middle school story, I was a very unreliable narrator. I missed a lot when I was in sixth through eighth grade—pretty much all the really big stuff going on beyond the scope of my own self-obsession. I say this now not just to be self-critical—another form of self-obsession—but because realizing that my story was more complex, that I was not purely acted upon, that I could, with some adult help, have perhaps handled things differently, is actually very empowering. 

AND THEN THEY STOPPED TALKING TO ME delves into how an adult’s perspective of middle school can influence a child’s experience of it. Why is it so important to understand our own role in the middle school experience?

Even though they are coming into their own, socially and intellectually, and beginning to explore and discover the universe outside of their homes (or should be), middle schoolers still primarily know the world as we present it to them. No matter how much they seemingly reject us, we remain their base of operation. Their rebellions tend to be pretty superficial; the not-me stuff they try on still has us as its center of gravity. What we say, how we act, dress, think, talk about and relate to others is enormously important—perhaps even more important than at any other point in their childhood, because their powers of perception have become so sharp. Just as, when they were very little, our reaction when they fell down conveyed to them whether or not they were hurt, in middle school our degree of calm or agitation cues their responses to their social and emotional ups and downs.

And Then They Stopped Talking to Me is a highly recommended read.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Michele Borba