The secret lives of middle schoolers

Writing a book about Maryland middle schoolers forced journalist Linda Perlstein to live like an adolscent again.

She attended swim practices and bat mitzvahs. She watched her subjects instant-message each other from their bedrooms, and even sat through their classes - though she could walk through the halls without a pass.

The result, "not much just chillin','' is a preteenager's view of the world, drawn from what Perlstein likens to a three-year-long game of dodge ball.

She discussed the book recently with the Monitor, and excerpts of the interview follow.

What prompted you to focus on middle schoolers?

Middle school is really where people start to say, "What's happening to my kid?" If you want to figure your kid out in high school, it's too late.

How is the transition to middle school different?

Kids in middle school are going through the biggest changes - physically and emotionally - that you'll go through in your life at any time besides infancy. They are reshaping relationships with friends and parents, noticing kids of the opposite sex, and their brains are developing faster.

There's a huge difference between a sixth- and eighth-grader compared to a first- and third-grader or a ninth- and eleventh-grader. There's so much change in that time that you have to work to reach kids in a different way.

What's changed since you were in middle school?

They have a lot more running through their heads than I did. We didn't have parents who shared their burdens with us. In my community, parents were married and most mothers didn't work.

If you want to play a sport today, you have to put in 10, 20, or 30 hours a week - even in middle school. When we wanted to play a sport we had one practice a week and one game a week. Parents weren't calculating our future scholarship potential.

You suggest sixth-graders quickly change from innocents to snobby and catty?

It's not particularly gradual. It happens every year. The kids who have been pretty sweet all year - it tends to be when they come back from spring break - tend to come back as full-on middle schoolers. Teachers dread it if they remember it. Some forget but come March, they remember.

What secrets did you unravel?

I wanted to know how in the world they can do their homework, bring it to school, and manage not to hand it in. I think it's not the first thing on their minds. They're simply very disorganized. Their capacity for organization has not fully developed yet.

Why do you emphasize how sexualized middle schoolers have become?

I was overwhelmed by it and pretty saddened too. You shouldn't have to be thinking about this kind of stuff at 12. It's not that the kids were going to go off and have sex in the alley, but I wonder what their relationships and sexual relationships would be like later in life. The patterns were so unintimate and objectified.

What's the right balance for teachers of brushing off moods and addressing problems?

A whining match with a sixth-grader is something that nobody can win. There's no particular benefit in engaging in it and they learn not to take it personally. The same kid who says 'I hate you' one minute can be the one hanging out in your class the next, just to be near you.

What should parents do?

The main thing is to be involved and ignore the "get out." These kids still want you around; they just may want you around in a slightly different way.

It's important not to underestimate the amount of power you still have over your child. A lot of parents throw up their hands and think they can't make a difference and throw their children to the peer gods, and that's wrong. Say 'no' and mean it - so the child hits middle school and is used to hearing it.

Are all middle schoolers just constantly self-absorbed and self-conscious?

I don't want to belittle their capacity for compassion and serious thought. A lot of people read my book and are surprised to learn kids think about death. They may not tell parents they love them but are preoccupied with losing them. They think about spirituality and they think about saving pound puppies.

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