What makes a middle schooler tick? Linda Perlstein, education writer for the Washington Post, decided to find out. With the dedication of an anthropologist, she moved to Columbia, Md., an economically mixed, multiethnic community. For almost a year she lived half a mile from Wilde Lake Middle School and embedded herself in the lives of its students. The result is Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). TIME talked with Perlstein:
What was your method for getting to know the kids?
I went to anything they did, such as swim practice. I sat on the couch and watched them do homework--or fight with their parents about doing it. I went to parties. I sat in on school staff meetings. I spent as much time in homes as I did in school. I even went on a family vacation.
Did these kids keep a lot of secrets from their parents?
Yes. They didn't want to worry their parents. Their parents have enough worries. The parent who says, My child tells me everything, is deluded. Your child tells you everything she wants to tell you.
How do kids today react to the physical changes of puberty?
Everyone responds differently, but no one seems totally comfortable with it. If you're not developing breasts, you're wondering why you're not developing breasts. If you are developing breasts, you're wondering why what all the boys pay attention to anymore is your breasts. It's kind of a no-win situation. When you're in middle school, you're in a weird spot. You're either wishing for the changes, or you're befuddled by them.
Are these kids sexually active?
A few of them are. Not so many as the horror stories have it. They're growing up in a far more sexualized culture than I did. I had Chuck Woolery on Love Connection asking people on TV the details of their date, and they may or may not recount a goodnight kiss. On today's dating shows, they have lap dances. They have hot-tub sessions. Middle schoolers are not so much having oral sex, but they love to discuss it.
Is popularity still one of the biggest concerns at this age?
I once heard a social scientist say that at age 50, anyone could look at their middle school yearbook and still rank the people in it in order of popularity. That hasn't changed. Girls especially can be incredibly mean to each other in middle school.
Does email play a large role in these kids' lives?
When I was in middle school 20 years ago, we spent a lot of time on the phone. But it nowhere near compares to the intensity and time kids spend communicating on the Internet. As most parents know, instant messaging is an obsession for most kids in middle school.
Is divorce a big issue at the school?
Yes. An unequivocal, bold yes. The teachers told me that they almost always saw a decline in behavior and schoolwork when a child's parents were going through a divorce. Sometimes, when divorce happens, it's hard not to clue your kids in on your problems and burdens. But a kid of 12 has enough burdens to carry. No one needs their parents' too. You're not doing them any favors by sharing.
Do you have advice for parents about homework?