When I hear the words “middle school”, a certain part of me shudders. Amidst the vague recollections of science labs or choir concerts is the overriding memory that kids in middle school are just plain awful to each other. The pecking order, the mockery, the sneering looks, the constant mood swings and drama … the fear that if you do one thing wrong you’ll be branded as a loser for the year.
Was it really that bad?
My daughter, who I’ve home schooled since kindergarten, will now be entering the local public middle school, and she does so with some trepidation because of what she’s heard from neighborhood kids about how mean some kids can be. She’s afraid of being bullied even as her own response to the slightest criticism is to retaliate in forces times ten.
Much of the middle grade literature I’ve read in the last few years deals with this kid cruelty. In every single book, there is at least one jerk or jerkette who seems to make it a daily goal to antagonize the main character.
Why is this what sticks out? Are middle schoolers all complete monsters? Really?
The hugely popular series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is brilliant on many levels for humor and relatability, but one thing author Jeff Kinney does is pure genius. He makes a jerk the protagonist. Greg Heffley is (in the words of his own best friend) “not a good friend”. The kid is completely self-absorbed and relates to the entire world with the intent of getting what he wants out of life—comfort, popularity, etc. The beauty of the “diary” format, is that we see how completely oblivious he is about the fact that he’s a jerk. We see his motivations (at least those of us readers who are not middle schoolers) as selfish, but ultimately very human.
And so we root for Greg (except when he’s mean to Rowley—the rare face of the genuinely nice kid). Why? Because we can see both sides of the story. We see where he feels oppressed and where he shows ambition. We see where he feels embarrassed and where he finds triumph. We see where he feels longing and where he experiences fulfillment. These are emotions all of us can understand.
Yes, he fails to see the needs of others much, but that’ll come with age. In the meantime, we would do well to remember that tweens aren’t beasties. They’re just like you and me. Just … immature and self-centered about it. Developmental psychologists will tell you that’s pretty much par for the course.
What else is the norm? Idealism and a budding sense of justice. Competition and the desire to improve. Friendship and the need to connect with others. Independence and an emerging capacity to take on responsibility. Creativity and a seemingly limitless appetite for humor.
All-in-all, it’s an intriguing balance. One that makes for fun books and interesting kids. The future looks bright … as long as they can survive the 8th grade!