WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER about middle school? Do you think any of those memories have haunted you, or shaped your actions in the present — even without your knowledge? According to journalist and astute observer of human behavior Judith Warner, it may be more likely than you think. Warner got curious after seeing the parents of her daughter’s middle school peers act in mysterious ways — as if the parents themselves had “inner 12-year-olds” pulling the strings.
In her new book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, Warner explores the history and culture of middle school and offers practical advice for kids and parents to deal with those difficult early years of adolescence. She looks, for instance, at how school districts in the United States first began separating early adolescents into their own schools in response to evolving brain research about children’s development. Warner also considers how middle school kids obtained their dreaded reputation as, in the view of many adults, “the worst,” and she explains how this perception can limit the ways in which adults mentor and teach them.
Warner is author of the New York Times best seller Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, as well as We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. She currently lives in Washington, DC. When we spoke in June, she was on her way home from a Black Lives Matter protest.
DEVORAH HEITNER: First, I want to thank you for your work — I read the entirety of And Then They Stopped Talking to Me in one sitting, and I immediately felt so much less alone with my middle school trauma. But I’m sure our present circumstances are not the ones in which you were expecting to publish this book. How are you holding up with this apocalyptic new reality and handling a book release in the midst of a pandemic?
JUDITH WARNER: Initially, social distancing didn’t affect me that much because I had been working remotely for a really long time. But it is certainly a weird time to do a book launch. My book tour is all virtual now. An author friend remarked to me the other day, “You could always have a second launch for the paperback.” But it is also just a generally terrifying time, and other than doing virtual author events, I just feel like I need to be in the street protesting.
You’ve written before about parenting and children. What led you to zero in on the subject of middle school?
I was working on another book about women that was in a lot of ways going to be kind of a follow-up to Perfect Madness, but this other idea about the middle school experience just kept making noise in my mind. When my daughters were in middle school, I was fascinated by other parents’ behavior. I witnessed among them a weird kind of aggression that wasn’t being talked about. I knew that there was something off about my own emotional reactions, too. Once I really started paying attention, there seemed to be a lot of moms in particular who acted like middle schoolers and involved themselves in the kids’ social drama. Parents were getting fed up with each other, even warring with one another. They just seemed very unhappy, and there really was no kind of community feeling. One day, I looked around at all these stressed parents and I started to wonder who the 12-year-olds really are here.
In the book, you make a compelling argument about class and scarcity. Can you talk a little bit about that?
One of the animating questions was about what’s universal, what’s specific, and what’s cultural. There are universals to the middle school experience. Puberty, for instance, is universal — the cognitive changes, the emotional changes. This life stage is about self-differentiation. The science actually shows that a lot of the thinking behind middle school culture is hardwired.
But much of the experience that isn’t hardwired comes down to what sort of opportunities you have and how adults view you. So the culture that you’re in makes a big difference — your race and socioeconomic status especially make a big difference in terms of the quality of education you receive, the kinds of opportunities you have, and the degree to which you’re given a voice and encouraged to start to actually use all of these new cognitive abilities that are coming online.
And what about this notion of scarcity within affluent communities?
I really noticed the scarcity mentality when I first moved to Washington, DC. I was living in this upper-middle-class, suburban environment. I hadn’t been a parent in the United States before, and I was shocked by the level of anxiety and the scarcity mentality among the parents, because it seemed like people were so well off and had so much.
One educator I interviewed for the book who had been a middle school principal in different communities told me that the meanness is worse in higher-income communities, among both the kids and the parents. Parents who have a sense of entitlement often expect that those around them are always trying to get ahead in a way that is absolutely not community-oriented or kindness-oriented. The psychological need to be constantly competing and striving seems to exist so strongly among the people who already have the most.
One of the things I took from And Then They Stopped Talking to Me is that parents need to really back off and support their kids in other ways. And then with educators, what you observed in your research is that there are ways educators can cultivate a culture that offers everyone a place.
Yes, absolutely. It is really difficult for parents to find that line, but a lot of it has to do with being able to tap into your own maturity rather than your own inner middle schooler.
I think it’s very easy to regress and not be aware of regressing. One woman who is a middle school teacher and administrator told me she was actually in the mean girls’ clique when she was in middle school. But she also shared that at sleepovers her mom would stay up with her and her friends and listen to them all talk and try to non-judgmentally steer them toward thinking about their classmates with more empathy. She’d ask things like, “Well, why is she doing that?” or, “What do you think that behavior actually means?” The intention behind this is twofold. First, it gets the kids to at least ask themselves some questions — “How do I feel about it, and why do I feel that way?” Second, it tries to get them to displace themselves a bit and make room for other people’s point of view.
You also write about how most adults actually fear middle schoolers, so the adults that really appreciate this particular age group can make a huge difference.
Middle schoolers have our number and they show it. And that’s part of the reason why adults don’t like them — because they see and call us on our bullshit. It’s not really until that age that they start doing that. I also think middle schoolers, like anyone else, don’t like to be told how awful they are, and they unfortunately get a lot of that. In popular culture, they’re always represented as being horrible, or teachers are shown getting frustrated with them and criticizing them. A lot of kids I interviewed for the book had stories about being looked at that way. Kids this age want to be appreciated for who they are, and they’re not all awful. So I think it makes sense that they would react to this stereotype and rebel against it. They want to be seen as more complete people.
I also think kids this age are not given interesting enough stuff to do; their real abilities aren’t tapped into. Their schoolwork can be ridiculously complex, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is intellectually engaging. Schools that manage to really engage them creatively and intellectually find that there’s so much they can do. We also need to engage their sense of social justice, which is very strong at that age. Where we fail is by giving them this image of themselves that’s kind of wretched, and they rise or sink to meet expectations.
One thing that I recognized in the course of writing the book is my memory of myself from that age was not accurate. It turned out that I didn’t remember ways in which I hadn’t been very nice. But I also didn’t remember a lot of the good things about myself from that age. Much of what made me who I am started to develop at that time. My intellectual interests, for instance, were all in place at that point, as was my interest in writing. I wanted to become fluent in French and live in France and be a writer — and I did those things. I also adored my best friend, and she is still one of my best friends.
How do you think social media has affected all of this? For example, it might be hard for parents to stay out of their kids’ stuff when parents can easily download software to spy on them, being able to do things like read their kids’ texts or view their browser history. Have you encountered parents who did that? And do you think that makes it worse?
Looking at the research, it seems clear to me that there’s a lot of vilification of social media, as though social media is this corrupting force or a threat to work out. But really, social media is just a new technological means for doing the same kinds of things that middle schoolers have been doing to each other forever. The specific problem with social media is that there’s no escape — it’s 24/7.
Spying on your kids’ social media also feels like a good way to relive middle school and all the anxiety that comes with it.
Exactly. It’s also a great way to feel horrified, because a lot of the things they say to each other are really awful or really gross. But I also think that parents’ own relationships with technology and social media are important when it comes to modeling positive behavior for their kids. Adults should be setting an example by not constantly being on their phones or bringing their phones to absolutely everything. And schools need to help them out by setting community standards and expectations. It’s incredibly difficult for parents to have to be on their own in creating rules and enforcing them. Kids are more likely to pay attention to rules if they are coming from an outside authority — especially if they’re coming from adults within the school community who they like and respect. Otherwise, they feel a sense of hypocrisy.
Ultimately, the book is about who we are as people and how middle school shapes us — both as kids and as parents. What surprised you the most in your research and writing?
I think the biggest surprise in doing the research — and this is super nerdy — was how much was already known about kids this age by the turn of the 20th century. I was amazed by the work of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, whose 1904 book Adolescence put the study of adolescents on the map. He just amassed so much information. Of course, it was all mixed in with completely crazy, Victorian-era nonsense — namely, racist and misogynistic and sexual theories that were widely accepted at the time. But, within Adolescence there’s also some really interesting science about mental health as well as brain science, which lays out the same basic findings that were later proven by MRI technology.
What are the reactions to the book that you’ve gotten so far?
People seem to find that it resonates with their own experiences and helps them understand those experiences. Especially now, people need to be able to read something that’s absorbing and entertaining and makes them think, but also takes them out of the wretchedness of the everyday. Every time you write a book and people respond well, there is always that feeling — they like me, they really like me! There’s a relief. Even if you survived middle school, there is still always the fear that people won’t like you, or that everyone will stop talking to you. Researching this book showed me that feeling is near universal. But it is still so real.
Devorah Heitner speaks internationally to parents, educators, and young people about the challenges and opportunities of growing up in the digital age. Her book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World was an Amazon best seller. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and Education Week. She has a PhD in Media & Society from Northwestern University.