My twin daughters will finish eighth grade this year. I wouldn’t wish middle school upon them again but if a do-over were called, I would insist that reading, And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School by Judith Warner be part of any deal; for their sake and mine.
And Then They Stopped Talking to Me brings together the collective wisdom of experts including educators, psychologists, social scientists and parents to show that parents need to lead by example. Parents can teach empathy, caring, kindness and acceptance and help middle schoolers see themselves and one another as more than the “quick-but-sticky labels,” like jock, mean girl, and nerd, that often get tragically assigned but never magically disappear.
The book is part cultural critique, and part call to action, with the hope of inducing change, one middle schooler at a time. All I need to do is look into the brown and green eyes of my girls to say those three-words that we moms are sometimes understandably reluctant to offer: Sign me up.
Judith Warner Answers Our Questions
MM:Middle school for your daughters was like “being in hell” and for you, as her parent, it was “like being in seventh grade all over again.” You heard similar comments in your research. Describe what you mean and how your family’s experience led you to write this book. And why did you think it was so important to write this book?
My daughter (I have two daughters, but to protect their privacy, I turned them into one composite for the book – a device that has proven very effective, but nonetheless feels weird every time I make use of it to answer a question) went through some long periods of isolation during her middle school years.
The “hell” descriptor applied as much to my experience as hers: there is nothing worse than watching one of the people you love more than anything and anyone in the world be rejected by those whose acceptance she or he most craves.
And to be powerless to do anything about it – after all, at that age, you can’t set up playdates or micromanage activities like you can when kids are much younger. Or so I thought, because I listened to what all the experts said and – like the good rule-follower I am – did what the teachers and school administrators said to us all on Back to School nights: back off, let them work their problems out for themselves, and find who they are.
The big shock I had eventually – the shock that played a major role in my decision to write this book – was in finding out that other parents (moms) weren’t playing by the same rules. They were micromanaging their kids’ social lives. They had agendas they were forwarding. They schemed and lied – not so much to me (because my daughter was so far out of it) – but to one another. And, by the time 8th grade was done, they hated one another. That was the part of things that reminded me of “seventh grade all over again.”
In early years of parenting we talk about how hard and lonely it is, but then we stop talking about it, why do we do that and why will talking about it help?
There’s a new kind of competitiveness that kicks in when kids are of middle school age. A kind of ambition by proxy, and also a strong sense of the importance of helping your kids save face. This often takes the nicely worded form of parents’ saying they want to protect their kids’ “privacy.” But what’s counted as private is often very inconsistent; parents will share things that, as the listener, you kind of wish they wouldn’t – but they won’t share things that show their kids in a vulnerable or less than high-performing light.
I think that’s a big part of why middle school parents often feel so alone with their worries and difficulties, even though I know now, after nearly 125 interviews, they’re not alone at all.
Talking about these things more openly and honestly would help parents the way opening up about your life and feelings helps all people, with or without kids, and at all ages: it allows you to connect. You have the opportunity to vent, and to laugh and to learn from others. Simply feeling in solidarity with others is comforting and reassuring.
Getting more information, having the ability to put things in perspective, always makes such a difference in making parents feel calmer and more empowered. And the middle school phase of childhood is the moment when, research has long shown, parents feel the least calm and empowered.
MM:You found that our own memories of middle school years can stay with us long afterwards. “Our memories had prepared most of us to view the coming years as a tightrope walk across the abyss.” “We all knew that middle school was the place where girls’ souls went to die.” How can we become aware of our residual feelings and what do we need to know about how they can influence us as parents?
Over the course of writing the book – and, actually, in the years before, I discovered that my own memories of middle school were very selective. I remembered all the bad things that happened to me. I didn’t remember – until I did – the hurtful things I’d done to others. I also tended to discount the good things about myself and my life from that time.
For reasons that have to do with the unique quality of early adolescent brain development, things that go wrong in the middle school years – particularly things having to do with friendship and rejection and popularity or unpopularity – cut particularly deep and hurt more than at any other point in our lives. They become powerful memories that live on in our minds with an immediacy unlike any other. Part of this has to do, again, with that selectivity: there are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves over and over again, and those stories become a key part of our identity.
We have to realize that middle schoolers – our own in the present and ourselves in the past – are unreliable narrators. Not because they’re liars or manipulators – because their ability to see the big picture and also to make sense of it is much, much more limited than we realize.
They often can sound like almost-adults when they talk, but they’re not, because they lack experience and the sorts of insight that come (if we’re lucky) with age.
And we always have to try to see our kids for who they are – not as a refracted version of who we are or who we were. We often (myself included, of course!) think we’re being compassionate when we say things like, “I know how you feel.” Or “I know exactly what that’s like.” Or even “I’ve been there.” But it’s not really helpful – we don’t know how they feel. And we’re not them. And they really need us to listen to how they experience things without injecting ourselves into the mix.
MM:A parent’s idea of “doing a good job” transformed in your research, what does it include?
It includes being emotionally present and knowing how to listen without judging or micromanaging. Conveying respect and appreciation for all kids, whether or not they conform to the dictates of the “popular” crowd. We can’t make our kids like all other kids or make them be friends with all other kids – and there’s no need for us to.
But we can model basic kindness and decency. We can stop ourselves from expressing our harsh judgments, or mockery. We can convey enthusiasm for kids’ talents and attributes that don’t correspond to middle school notions of what’s “cool” or necessary for being “popular.”
In other words, we can open up a space in which all kinds of kids – all kinds of people – are acceptable and worthy of respect. We can also do what we can to make our kids both kinder and happier in the long run by trying to teach them to de-center their own feelings, desires, and ambitions and instead start to think about what other people think, feel and may be going through.
Once again, it’s not (just) a question of being “nice,” but rather, instilling a sensibility and set of skills that both makes the world a better place and sets them up, long-term, for greater happiness, personal strength, and resilience.
MM:What are some of the surprising things your research taught you?
Perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered is that, more than a century ago, experts knew many essential things about kids in early adolescence that we have consistently un-learned ever since. They didn’t have the technology, like MRIs and FMRIs, to prove it, but they knew that there was something new and unique that happened to kids’ minds right around puberty, and they knew it had something to do with brain development.
They also knew that what we today consider the middle school years were a period when kids of the same age varied enormously from one another in their physical, emotional, cognitive and social development, largely according to where they were in puberty, and that if kids appeared to be “behind” in that period, doing poorly academically, coming across as immature, it didn’t have anything to do with how smart they were or where they’d turn out to be five or ten years later. (Unless they experienced a lot of negative outcomes from the way adults and other kids reacted to their being different.)
We parents tend – just like our kids – to be so normative about middle schoolers. We pass judgment so much: “mature” and “immature” are such value-laden words. And they’re largely irrelevant. Because kids of this age are leaving what Lisa Damour calls their original “tribe” of home and family and are looking for a new “tribe” of friends from among their peers, they’re desperate to fit in and extra-intolerant of difference. That’s a recipe for unhappiness, and we have to be really, really careful not to go along for the ride with them.
MM:Thoughts about the summer? Many kids with far less to do than normal, any advice for parents?
Talk about “hellish.” This is such a hard time for parents. We’re always on our own in the U.S., compared to other similar countries, but right now, thanks to distance learning and social distancing, parents truly are being called upon to do and be everything for their kids – and in the case of their middle schoolers, the kids absolutely don’t want them to be so uber-present.
I wish, this spring, that schools had stepped up to offer more guidance and leadership. Not by assigning more homework or upping the intellectual demands of assignments, but by helping parents help their kids identify what moves and interests them, what their passions are, what they most want to read about and do, and can do, at home or outside, without the company of their friends.
With the summer coming, parents are scrambling, and schools, of course, are off the hook. There will be some online programs but kids will be deprived of the magical experience that camp is for so many — and particularly for those who are unhappy during the school year. Camp is so often what saves middle schoolers who are otherwise on the outs socially.
They meet other kids like them; they’re valued for who they are and what they can do in ways that aren’t necessarily recognized or valued during the school year. I know that a lot of people have an elitist association with summer camp; I don’t, because I attended a church-sponsored sleepaway camp that was very inexpensive, and my daughter attended one that was entirely secular but otherwise quite similar.
The lack of camp makes me really sad, particularly for kids this age. The most important thing for parents to remember, at any time, is that, their relationship with their kids matters more than any sort of achievement. That’s especially true now, when our relationships are put to the test, and also when so many parents are anxious that their kids are at risk of falling behind academically. A fear that many will try to compensate over the summer, so that kids will return to school in the fall exhausted, rather than recharged.
MM:Want to leave parents with some of the amazing things to remember about their 11-14-year olds? There are some truly magical things about young teens, what are they and how can we refocus on them?
These kids are at a point when they’re coming into a whole new level of cognitive ability, creative ability, and interest in the outside world. They have a sharp sense of justice and injustice. They care deeply about what’s happening in the world around them, and they want to make it a better place.
Ever since the junior high schools first came into being, educators have talked about the need to tap into all of this. And for just as long, most of our schools have failed to do so. The one silver lining of this period is that, while everything is disrupted, everything is … disrupted: meaning, the bad social stuff that occupies so much of the middle school mind and the school day. Middle schoolers have an unprecedented opportunity right now to pursue “passion projects,” rediscover and reconnect with old friends whom their usual school clique may not like or accept.
They can re-learn what it is to enjoy being with family – even to be alone. It sounds Pollyanna-ish until you think really hard about what you enjoyed when you were that age. More likely than not, you’ll probably discover that it wasn’t (just) your social life. It was probably the very same sorts of things that you love most today. That was certainly true for my daughter – and I know it was true for me.
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