Judith Warner is the author of is the author of nine non-fiction books, including the New York Times bestsellers, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, plus the multiple award-winning We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. In her new book released today, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, she reports on her interviews with middle school children and their parent’s about parenting middle schoolers in today’s society.  I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her book:

AK: As a parent I hear a lot in the media about “helicopter parents” and how they are ruining their children .But I also get the impression that being a helicopter parent (or “intensive parenting”) might be the best way to make sure my kids will succeed in a competitive society. After doing your research, what do you think of intensive parenting?  Why do we do it, and is it really ruining our kids? 

JW: The longer I have been a parent, and the more experts I have interviewed over the past 15 or so years, the more I’ve become firmly convinced that our ability to “ruin” our children is as limited as our ability to create, much less perfect them. That is to say: we can tinker around the edges, but they are who they are, with so much of who they are hard-wired at birth. I find enormous comfort in this, as I think all parents do once they reach this point – usually when their kids are in college, but sometimes before – of understanding the limitations of their power. That said: there’s certainly a lot we can do to make their time at home more or less pleasant or miserable, and there are things we can try, at least, to do to equip them to live their lives with as much strength and resilience as possible.

Middle school really is the time when that issue of equipping them with those tools becomes particularly urgent. After all, it’s a difficult time for most kids – the time that many adults remember as the most painful of their lives. It’s also, and has long been, a very difficult time for parents, and the style in which we parent today – some call it “helicopter,” others “intensive” parenting; I tend to think of it just as enmeshment – makes it far tougher still. For us. Many parents of my generation – the older end of Gen X, though this is certainly true for at least the younger portion of Baby Boomers, too – grew up with more or less “Mad Men”-style parenting. And many of us came out of it feeling kind of under-parented, like we weren’t really seen, and our feelings weren’t validated. So much parent behavior that falls into the helicopter category comes from this, I believe. There’s also, of course, enormous anxiety about our kids’ future (and our own future), stemming from a great deal of status insecurity in the middle and upper middle class. (Lower-income parents deal with all kinds of anxiety and insecurity, too, but they tend not to be accused of helicopter parenting and tend not to have the time to engage in it with the level of frenzy we see among the affluent.)

All of which gets me to the part of your question about success: Experts believe that helicopter parenting is bad for kids – it undermines their sense of self-efficacy, prevents their developing resiliency and “grit,” etc. I’m sure this is true. But there’s a cynical side of me that has come to believe that these parents do, indeed, prepare their kids well for success in the world of the privileged, in that they very often convey the values necessary for navigating a highly unequal and status-driven world where the rules are different for the wealthy and well-connected. Helicopter parents pull out all the stops to make sure their own kids’ interests come first; this usually gets dressed up in the much nicer-sounding phrase, “they advocate for their kids.” Those with sufficient money and time on their hands to spend enormous amounts of time in their kids’ schools, volunteering in the classroom, fundraising, etc., recent studies have shown, do get preferential treatment for their kids. Those who – later on – micromanage their kids’ school work, even, at the extremes, writing their papers, genuinely do get them better grades. None of this is right; none of it is good for kids in a human, character-building, problem-solving sense. But if your goal is success at all costs in a world that runs on knowing how to game every system, then, in a certain sense, you do make your kids more successful.

AK: I went to middle school in the 1990s; my daughters will both start middle school in the 2020s. How will their experience be different than mine? 

JW: The biggest change will, of course, be the ubiquity of social media: whatever sorts of social drama you remember will now be able to play out 24/7, and unless adults in your community (hopefully led by teachers and schools) set rules around access to screens, there will potentially be no escape from it. Another change, depending on the type of school your daughters are in and the type of community you live in, will be, if current trends continue, that the level of pressure middle schoolers are under will be nothing like what you remember. They’ll already be talking about college and what they have to do to get in. They may be studying math at a level you didn’t encounter until high school. They – or their classmates – may already be attracting the attention of college recruiters if they’re exceptional athletes. They’ll be wondering what their special talent is – so on top of the usual and age-old worries about whether they’re good-looking enough and popular enough, etc. they’ll also worry about whether they’re successful enough.

All that said, I also think you’ll see, as I did, that middle schoolers themselves have not really changed. I was surprised to discover this when my own daughters were in middle school in the early 2010s. We’d been hearing for decades how sped-up and racy and dangerous everything had become; that middle schoolers were yesterday’s high schoolers in terms of their sexual knowledge and risk-taking behavior. In fact, reading the news, there was – and continues to be – every reason to believe that they were all but sociopathic. But I didn’t find anything like that at all. I was a middle schooler (though people were in “junior high” then) in the late 1970s, in New York City. It was a time when there was far more sexualization – and unquestioned sexualization – of girls of middle school age. (I vaguely remembered this but re-discovering with adult eyes the way that girls like Brooke Shields were described in the media back then was absolutely shocking.) My world was full of crime and a general kind of urban rot; other adults I interviewed described sex and drugs everywhere, and a lot of parents were out to lunch. My daughters’ world was far safer and more child-like. The kids around them behaved pretty much exactly the way I remembered my peers behaving decades before. If anything, the culture had changed in ways that meant they were, at least on the surface, somewhat nicer: there was an awareness of bullying, and that it was unacceptable. Expressions of racism or homophobia were unacceptable. Studies have backed up my anecdotal observations. They show that in recent years middle schoolers are far less likely to drink, take drugs, have sex or go on dates than they were a generation ago – partly because they’re spending so much time on social media.

My research for the book, which traces how adults have looked at, thought about, and written about kids in the years around puberty for over a century in the U.S., has redoubled my feeling, based on personal experience, that we have to be super-skeptical of any reports on how dangerous or otherwise bad things are among middle schoolers. Adults have been catastrophizing about them since the early 1960s. And the narrative through which they do so is pretty much always the same: these kids aren’t kids anymore. Because of earlier puberty, they’re getting into sex earlier, etc. That, at least, was the predominant narrative from the early 60s through the late 2000s. I think it’s calmed down since. But the panic about sexting and the general evils of social media has replaced it. Once again, social media plays a huge role in middle schoolers’ lives, but that role is not terribly different than the use to which we put analog forms of communication (land lines and notes passed in class) in the past. I think it’s important not to exaggerate the dangers and vilify it, because doing so can actually let adults off the hook from thinking concretely and productively about how to educate kids in handling it. We used to talk a lot about media literacy – we need social media literacy now, i.e. to give kids an understanding that what they view on line is curated, that they need to think critically about what they’re viewing, and whether their own behavior on or around social media serves them well.

AK:  What did you find most surprising when doing research for this book?

JW: As I mentioned a moment ago, discovering how much middle schoolers of my daughters’ generation were essentially just like the sixth, seventh and eighth graders I remembered from the past really was eye-opening. Another thing that really surprised me was discovering that many of the most basic and essential truths about early adolescence were known to researchers back at the turn of the 20th century. Late 19th century brain research had shown that kids undergo significant cognitive changes right around puberty, and that those changes were likely due to changes in the brain – not in its size, but in its structure and functioning and, in particular, the nature of its connectivity due to myelination. Educators in the early junior high school reform movement – who advocated separating out 7th and 8th graders from their old K-8 schools and putting them in new institutions with 9th graders where they could enjoy an education specially tailored for their unique needs – knew that kids the same age in the years around puberty varied enormously in their levels of physical, emotional and intellectual maturity, and that this unusually high degree of variability was absolutely normal. They knew that kids at the younger end often appeared not to be good students and were at risk of being seen, or thinking of themselves as “not smart,” but that intelligence had nothing to do with it. For that reason, they advocated very strongly for individualized instruction in what are now the middle school years, using the very same terms of argument you’ll hear today. They didn’t get it – and neither did the proponents of the middle school movement in the 1960s. We still don’t have it today.

I also was surprised at just how emotional my interviews turned out to be. My central interest, when I embarked upon writing this book, was in finding out how people’s middle school experiences lived on in them throughout their lives: what they had experienced, how they had experienced it, and how they had turned their memories into their stories of self afterwards. I wanted to know how middle school and its vicissitudes lived on in adults and impacted them throughout their lives, especially as parents. I was knocked off my feet by the volume of response to my initial queries. If I’d interviewed everyone who expressed interest, I’d still be at it today, five years later. The interviews were one-on-one, and they usually lasted about two hours. Many people cried. I saw that, if you say to someone, “Tell me about your middle school experience,” you’d soon get their entire lives in a nutshell. This remains the part of the book that fascinates me the most.

Judith Warner is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Journalism Fellow with the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign. She is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, was a contributing columnist for the Times and a special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, and has freelanced for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. 

Arielle Kuperberg, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UNC Greensboro, and the editor of the CCF Blog @The Society Pages. Follow her on twitter @ATKuperberg or email her at atkuperb@uncg.edu.