MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Middle school - maybe you loved it. Maybe you hated it. Middle school spans those tween and early teenage years when, for many of us, puberty hits, bullies seem to reign supreme, and we begin to grow into ourselves. Well, like most of us, writer and reporter Judith Warner was once a middle schooler. She's also the mother of two former middle schoolers. And in her new book, she investigates why the middle school years can be so awful and what we can do to help make them a little bit better. The book is titled "And Then They Stopped Talking To Me."
Judith Warner, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JUDITH WARNER: Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: So let me just throw a little word game at you to start because I know you talked to a ton of people for the book. When you asked them to recall and describe their middle school experiences, would you just give us a sampling of the words that they chose?
WARNER: Shattering, a rush of nausea, you know, any variation on the word misery that you can come up with. And yet then, there were a couple of people who had good memories, too. And that was something that was important for me to hold on to and listen to in more detail.
KELLY: What made you decide to dive in and focus on this for a whole book?
WARNER: I was surprised in a sense by the fact that the kids were very different than I expected. My expectations were really built on my perceptions from when I was much younger. So I expected middle schoolers to be these sorts of monsters. And they weren't - they were just kids. But the parents seemed to have something strange come over them when our kids hit sixth grade or so. And I felt everything so acutely, everything that was happening to my daughters, you know, the ups and downs. And that's when I got to wondering about that. You know, was there something going on inside of us? And that was really the genesis for the book.
KELLY: You just touched on so many things I want to follow up on. One is that you had this expectation that middle schoolers would be monsters and they weren't. A lot of our stereotypes about these years, as you lay out in the book, just aren't true when you actually went and reported them out.
WARNER: We have these stereotypes. And, of course, there are painful things that happen in middle school. There is a lot of meanness that goes on. You know, seventh grade is the year when bullying peaks. But when you're actually looking at these kids as an adult and not as another middle schooler, you really do see that they are just kids moving through their lives and trying to make the best of a difficult phase of life. And that was really eye-opening for me.
KELLY: All right. Let's turn to the parents and their point of view. And I will make it personal because I was struck by how you opened Chapter 6. I'll read your words back to you. You write, (reading) when my daughter started middle school, I, like all the other parents I knew, expected the absolute worst.
Really? And I guess I'm wondering, were you proven right?
WARNER: It certainly seemed that way. You know, there was a lot of sort of sighing and anticipatory anxiety and kind of grim faces. I don't think I was proven right, not because my daughters had such wonderful times but because I'm not 12 years old. So the things that happened didn't have the same level of kind of horror, and they didn't have the same sort of totalizing reality about them that they have when you are that age yourself. And maintaining that boundary between yourself and your kids at that phase of life is so incredibly important. It's definitely something I struggled with. It is absolutely something the parents around me were struggling with because our own memories and feelings from that time of life are so immediate.
KELLY: So how can we not be crazy seeming parents?
WARNER: I think the most basic element to doing better is take care of yourself and make yourself as mentally healthy as possible, so that you have the bandwidth to try to relate to your kids from the part of your brain that is rational, reasonable, you know, able to sort of think things through, rather than from a place of pure emotion because that's where we always get into trouble. And the problem is, of course, our emotions are so easily triggered and sort of cut so deep when our kids are of middle school age, so it's that much more difficult to hold onto that.
KELLY: Last thing to put to you, which is this - how much of what you're writing about here is universal? Because you discuss in the book you made an effort to interview people across class, across race, different parts of the country and so on. But it seems true that middle-age angst is something that for a lot of people must feel like a luxury.
WARNER: What I've found is that there's a great deal that's universal. I mean, puberty is universal. The questions that we ask ourselves when we are of middle school age having to do with, you know, who am I, where do I rank, where does my family rank, we all share these elements. And we all share the love for our children and the worries about what their future is going to be. But what is specific is the behavior that accompanies all of this. And also, I think, the degree of nonsense that happens. Mostly, of course, when I say nonsense, I'm talking about parent behavior - some of the excessive presence.
KELLY: The helicopter parenting.
WARNER: The helicopter parenting and also the competitive parenting. And one thing that research has shown, actually, is that mental health wise and in terms of engaging in behaviors we don't want them to engage in, upper-middle-class kids in the U.S. are doing worse than their counterparts who are middle class or low income. And that seems to come down to the fact that their communities are very competitive, and the value systems in those communities really stress a kind of, you know, me above everyone else. So I think there's a lot of food for thought there in terms of what we can change and what we can't change and what we actually want for our kids.
KELLY: Judith Warner, thank you so much.
WARNER: Thank you so much.
KELLY: Her new book is called "And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense Of Middle School."
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