Tweens 4Ever

In Defense Of Middle Schoolers, Who Are Actually Really Great

My years teaching 13-year-olds have made me forever willing to leap to their defense.

by Purnima Mani
Originally Published: 
Ready Or Not! It's Back To School Season

When I tell people I taught middle school and liked it, responses range from grudging skepticism to full-scale pity. Does a demographic exist that is more uniformly maligned or wrapped in brighter caution tape than middle schoolers? Find the parent who just got eye-rolled by their seventh-grader for the millionth time and is now afraid to make direct eye contact. Corner the school administrator speed-walking toward the gaggle of adolescents cutting class. Chase down neighbors, aunts, coaches, anyone that’s come within cringing distance of a newly minted teen. The general consensus is that they’re the actual worst.

But my years sharing a classroom with 13-year-olds were actually pretty great, and I’ve always been willing to unironically leap to their defense. This year, however, I’ve become the parent of a preteen about to begin middle school, and I find myself on the receiving end of my son’s prickly words and sullen glares. So now I’m reaching back, trying to remember — more for myself than anyone — what makes this time of life so special. So here it is, my non-exhaustive list of the best things about kids who are in that tricky, in-between stage of being a child and an adult.

Middle schoolers give shockingly precise compliments.

People complain about teenagers being “hormonal,” but that primarily translates to how deeply they feel things. And while it may sting to be on the receiving end when they’re in a foul mood, nothing makes the heart sing like witnessing their sunshine. I love when my 7-year-old tells me I look nice, but there is something special about the student who, rather than muttering their usual greeting at the door, pauses to say they’re “a fan of the springtime Euro-chic vibes your dress is giving.” That’s the real deal.

We are unfortunately most familiar with their really specific brand of snark, but middle schoolers still have an innate desire to make others happy. Either way, teaching them means every day is a chance to hear surprisingly on-point positive feedback, and the most important thing we can make sure to do is return the favor. As a group riding the wild swings of the emotional pendulum, adolescents could definitely stand to hear us say more nice things about them. They deserve to know we see their inherent goodness, especially when they question it for themselves.

They’re really funny.

Every middle schooler I know is happy to dwell in silliness. They are quick to laugh and have a quirky sense of humor all their own. I still crack up thinking of the eighth grader who, when asked during sex-ed class what he would do to set the right mood for a partner, poker-facedly said that he’d “put together a nice cheese plate, with at least two soft cheeses.” When your day feels like an endless exercise in sidestepping disaster, being around a young teen can give you a much-needed shot of levity. There’s no one better than a 13- or 14-year-old to lounge on the grass with. They’ll point out how every cloud resembles something lewd, make you snort-laugh until you cry, and sneak in a really profound observation about life that won’t hit you until much later.

They’re in the know.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened my school email to find a meme or YouTube link from a student that sent me down a wonderfully weird rabbit hole. They are masters of pop culture, and it’s fun getting caught up in their obsessions. Ask your middle schooler enough questions about their areas of expertise, watch them light up, then cross your fingers that just maybe when they need advice about something, they’ll come to you, too.

Their books are good.

Sure, some YA is terrible (Twilight hive, don’t come for me), but overwhelmingly in recent years, young adult lit can stand shoulder to shoulder with good writing anywhere. What really makes these books worth exploring for adult audiences is that YA authors are unafraid to tackle difficult topics. Both in prose and poetic forms, the market is crowded with books about grief, race, sexual identification, marginalization, and everything in between, because the adolescent mind, like our own, is looking for ways to make sense of the most incomprehensible parts of the world. And while reading the classics has its place, contemporary YA stories are populated with people and places that seem relatable to teens. 13-year-olds may understand something about race in America by reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but the connection they feel to the racial injustice in The Hate U Give is much more visceral. All the more reason for parents to be clued in, too. So pick up a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, Emily X.R. Pan, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, or the scores of other authors writing books for and about your growing teen. Then, prepare to have some excellent, eye-opening conversations.

They’re thoughtful but not yet jaded.

If you have an elementary-aged child, chances are you still feel like an authority figure. Parents of high schoolers may count themselves lucky to be asked for any input at all. But there’s a sweet spot you hit with children in the tween years, where interacting with them is less overtly instructive and more of an easy conversation. They’re interested in everything and capable of startling insights. New teens are simultaneously less clueless than they seem and more innocent than we give them credit for. Their hunger for connection is a pulsing, palpable thing. All they want is a seat at the table, and someone who cares about what they have to say.

Middle schoolers are ultimately trying to figure out how to inhabit their changing bodies and show up in the world, and we all need to cut them some slack. Adolescence is a teaser of the big decisions, emotional upheaval, and layered relationships of adulthood. No one could possibly get it right on the first try. But we should try to be the adults that believe in their eventual ability to get there.

Purnima Mani is an impatient parent, middle school English teacher, intrepid home baker, and fledgling writer. She lives in Northern California with her husband, two children, and a very opinionated rescue dog. She has written for Romper about what teacher’s really want from parents, how her search for a mother figure led her to her mom, and postpartum depression after IVF.

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