Tween-Age Wasteland

Are we paying too much attention to the woes of preadolescence?

After a flare-up with my daughter at some point in sixth grade—when and about what, I can’t remember, except that it was very minor—I found her huddled on her bed reading a little black brochure with “H.E.L.P.” in bold red letters on the cover. It was a handout her teacher had distributed earlier in the year to parents. I’d at first mistaken it for an anti-drug advisory, but it was actually a preadolescent advisory—the acronym stood for How to Enjoy Living with a Preadolescent—and my daughter was not impressed. Red-eyed, she looked up and said, “I hate this pamphlet.” Then she murmured to me, “I don’t know why I got so mad.”

As she had just learned from Page 9 of the National Middle School Association’s publication for “parents and guardians of children 10-15,” hers was a classic preadolescent symptom: “Even they don’t know why they are suddenly irritable. They don’t know where that negative tone comes from.” But one thing my daughter knew was that having her moodiness met with diagnostic solicitude only irritated her further. I don’t think it helped that on Page 10 her age group was compared to toddlers: “Two-year-olds say, ‘No,’ middle schoolers say, ‘So????’ “

For more than a decade now, it hasn’t been just savvy marketers who have trained their sights on “tweens.”  Professionals and parents have grown increasingly obsessed with what was once dismissed as the “no man’s land” of the middle school stage; a Carnegie Commission report in 1995 called “Great Transitions,” which reported the latest research on rapid bodily and brain change, roused a new sense of concern and helped put the early adolescent phase on the map. This stage, experts began warning, is when children are either launched—educationally, socially, and emotionally—or get lost and left behind. Yet here, amid the stirrings of sexuality and the pressures of group conformity, is where parents first have to contend with peers as they try to retain any influence. So do teachers: Calls for more self-directed, “hands-on” learning in the “academic wasteland” of middle school alternate with exasperated sighs about terminally distracted students.

The current pedagogically correct question to ask is whether middle schoolers themselves might have some insights to offer, if adults would only “stand by and be good listeners” (as H.E.L.P. urges on Page 13). Actually, they do, to judge by recent journalistic and cinematic dispatches from the early adolescent front. But the message from middle schoolers is not what you might think or quite what their grown-up emissaries hear. Empathetic listening and therapeutic understanding, the kids suggest, can be overrated: What they really need are adults who can help them look and think beyond the often narcissistic travails of middle school, not prod them to obsess more explicitly about every personal problem. “Don’t treat me like your patients,” teenage Anna shrieks at her therapist-mother in Freaky Friday, a comedy in which the pair swap bodies for a day. “Mom, stop shrinking me!” 

A similar impatience surfaces in two vérité ventures into middle school that could hardly be more different: Washington Post reporter Linda Perlstein’s Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers and the recently released film Thirteen. Not Much Just Chillin’, an account of a year in Maryland’s Wilde Lake Middle School, traffics in early teen experiences that are as banal as Tracy and Evie’s exploits in Thirteen are sensational. But for the kids involved in each, the problem isn’t so much that grown-ups won’t or can’t begin to imagine teenage turmoil; it’s that more than a few of their elders are parasitically invested in adolescent identity confusion themselves.

At Wilde, well-meaning administrators desperate to “connect” with the kids unwittingly reinforce an ethos of shallow self-absorption. Amid a test-driven curriculum heavily dependent on dry work sheets, health class—where discussion actually occurs!—is a focal point for the kids. But even there, the teacher skirts all but the most superficial questions about sex and relationships. A sexual harassment education effort inspires more mockery than clarity, as boys keep on grabbing their classmates’ butts and boobs. (What lies behind such boorish, throwback behavior—and all the suck-my-dick talk, and occasional action, that goes along with it—seems to have professionals as stumped as parents; MTV culture, I’ve noticed, is everybody’s catch-all culprit.)

As for efforts to probe preadolescent psyches more deeply, the kids at Wilde can’t help wondering, “What’s the point?” Perlstein finds. “The touchy-feely goal-setting and ‘What I Have Learned’ crap just feels … like a fat waste of time” to a drifty eighth-grader named Eric Ellis. Seventh-grade achiever Elizabeth Ginsburg fumes that she’s “sick of … her parents … talking about her in the third person and figuring out the symbolism in her every move and finding interesting ways to discuss her inner struggles.” Even 15-year-old Nikki Reed, whom director Catherine Hardwicke helped rescue from an eighth-grade plummet into bad-girldom by helping her turn her saga into the harrowing script of Thirteen, shows signs of balking now that her mentor is flacking the film as “cinematherapy” for “kids and moms.” The poster girl for preadolescent angst protests, “I didn’t want to be a spokesperson for troubled girls.”

You can see her point. It’s as hard to ferret out profound wisdom from the lurid corruption of Tracy, the Nikki character in Thirteen, as from the “chillin’ ” Perlstein so assiduously documents at Wilde. What is obvious from both accounts is that family breakdown and haplessly immature parents can be awful for kids—hardly news by now. Beyond that, Perlstein’s and Hardwicke’s fast-cutting evocations of the “flitting passions,” rebellions, betrayals, and even horrors of preadolescence are a peculiar mimetic achievement: They succeed in conveying just how weightless, even tedious, and how resistant to anything but clichéd analysis, the early teen roller-coaster ride is. That’s the restless kids’ own refrain in their barrage of instant messages about everything and nothing—about the teacher who’s “sooooooooooo annoying”; the geek who’s “A LOOSER … A FAGGET … SO FUCKING GAY”; the girl who considers herself “chic yet humorus, sophisticated yet sexy”; the latest crushes and favorite phrases (“Bonermobile,” “chillin shit!” “poo fuck!”). They keep saying they’re “so bored,” and you know what they mean. Even wild Tracy is biding her time, spinning her wheels, waiting for something.

In narratives that refuse to build and characters who are a blur of motion and confused motives, Perlstein and Thirteen remind us that early adolescence is above all about transience. The experiments in romance and social alliances—and even in angry defiance—that dominate these accounts tend to seem either trivial or brutal but, mercifully, mostly fickle. From the outside looking in, we can see that this is a period that is not so much formative as transformative, or so we can hope. But if what kids see when they dart desperate, astute glances our way is adults fearfully transfixed by all the flux, they’re likely to have a harder time marshalling that dizzying energy of theirs to move on. They can make that “So????” sound very derisive, yet not far from the surface they’re still deeply inquisitive. But if all we do is reflect their unhappiness back at them, where will they get any answers?