Today's Tweens: Insights From the Halls of Middle School to the Walls of Camp Cabins

An Interview with Linda Perlstein

When you are a veteran writer and have a master's in international affairs from Columbia University, but you want to go back to middle school, could something be awry? Not for Linda Perlstein, because along the road to discovering the mysterious minds of middle-schoolers, she decided the best research method was to spend a school year with a group of five tweens as they managed the choppy waters of middle school. A conscientious observer in the lunchroom, the classroom, the hallways, Linda Perlstein found pearls of wisdom for her book, Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle-Schoolers, and, not just for her book, but for anyone working with the modern-day tween. As she encircled herself with the ideals, whims, rebelliousness, and quirkiness of this group of tweens, she built a path of hope, genuine concern, and renewed understanding. With witty humor, a tellit- like-it-is attitude, and a refreshing no-holds-barred banter, Perlstein shares her lessons learned in this exclusive interview with Camping Magazine, which is merely a glimpse of the knowledge she will share during her keynote presentation at the 2009 ACA National Conference.

As a camper yourself, what camp experiences did you take with you into adulthood that positively shaped your career aspirations and life goals?

Camp did not necessarily lead me to my career, except for my ongoing interest in middle-schoolers . . . I loved that time in my life, and camp was a big part of why I liked being twelve.

There was always something special about the sense of community and independence that I found at camp, which helped me set my own course. It's really important for camps to continue to provide these skills, because often children aren't being taught these skills elsewhere — which is the case more so today, than ever. We are working so hard to direct our children to do well, we forget how independence and self-direction make a better adult . . . and a more interesting child for that matter.

Describe the impact the camp experience can have on today's tweens:

First of all, in the years of early adolescence because of the way the brain develops, things that you learn are more apt to stick with you during that time of life. It's a great time to learn new skills. I learned at camp to horseback ride and water ski; I learned these skills at the right time in my development, so when I go horseback riding and water skiing now as an adult, I can do it. The early stage of puberty is a critical time in brain development. That's why you can, for example, learn multiple languages as a child but have trouble learning different languages in college.

Additionally, there is something extraordinarily valuable about taking children out of a typical situation and giving them the opportunity to create a different reality. They can be pegged early on in a social group at school: as the popular kid, the loser, or whatever. It's really important for them to be given an opportunity outside of their normal lives to re-create themselves to whatever they want to be, and camp allows that.

Share your insights into how campers in their tweens and early teens view life and the important issues of which camp professionals should be aware:

Tweens and teens are certainly smarter than we give them credit for being. They are highly attuned to hypocrisy; they are starting to see connections with themselves and the outside world, and they are finally at an age when they begin to understand that their parents aren't perfect, however, they don't see the imperfections in other adults. Because of this, the role of the camp counselor is particularly important. You may witness tweens "clinging" to older teenagers and adults. Clinging is understandable; they still want and seek the approval of adults and older kids. I think this is important to understand when you think about how tweens view the world.

In what way is modern-day childhood and tween life different than when the Baby Boomers came of age and in what way is it the same?

I think kids are under more pressure than we were at that age. It's easy to lapse into nostalgia and think it's the same and that they are faced with the same cultural pressures. When we were young, we had the kids department at JC Penney® to shop at; today they have a wing at the mall. They have movie ratings dedicated to them. Entire television stations are devoted to children. The line between adult and child has blurred. Children today have to navigate this information and knowledge: they often have adults in their lives who share their problems with them; they face sexuality in the media and around them, regardless of what they are doing; they communicate with kids and interact continually; they deal with academic pressures to excel and the sense that you can't just do Little League and show up a couple times . . . today, if you miss one practice, you're kicked off the team; they are challenged by the intensity of sports and extra-curricular activities — childhood used to be pure fun, but now it's almost job-like.

Developmentally, many of the same things are going on as they did when we were kids. It's still a wonderful age just like it always used to be to learn things. It's still a fun, silly age to be a kid, and that hasn't changed.

How are the "halls of suburbia middle school" and the "cabin walls of camp" similar in respect to offering the same environmental dilemmas to tweens?

You are still desperate to fit in whether at school or at camp, still worried if your arm pits smell, and still trying to figure out who you are and what you're all about. At camp and at school, you are navigating between child and teen, and in the end, you still have grown ups telling you what to do.

Whether in camp or in school, kids in the middle-school years want to know why they have to do something in a certain way or why things happen; they need the help of adults to understand that.

And, like their teacher counterparts, how can camp staff be prepared to successfully deal with these challenges?

They have to know what to do with a bunch of eleven-year-old girls boxing out another girl . . . . it's not something to be ignored. Camp like school and home is a place to learn right and wrong; camp needs to provide opportunities for discovery and choice. Kids should have some role in deciding how to spend their days and be given the freedom to make mistakes, too. And, about parents, some of you may not agree, but we have to keep parents the hell out of their business, while they are at camp as much as we can. Camp is a child's own space and that should be sacred.

It is said that your book, Not Much Just Chillin', offers a trail map to the often baffling "no-man's land between child and teen, a time when children don't want to grow up, and yet so badly do." How can camp staff offer a unique positive influence on youth today that is different from the educator's influence?

Camp counselors have the freedom to be friends in a way teachers may not have the opportunity to do. A camp counselor does not need to focus on making the child "more accomplished," and as far as I'm concerned, shouldn't. The camp counselor is doing a child a great service by helping him or her learn to explore, enjoy, make choices, and be a friend.

What were some of the most significant lessons you learned from the children whose middle school lives you chronicled in your book, Not Much Just Chillin'?

The main thing to understand is that they have a far deeper interior life then you realize. They struggle more than you realize. A boy gets crushes just as much as a girl; however, boys may not write it on their shoe or notebook. I wanted to show in this book, just how deeply these children feel.

Linda Perlstein is a former day, resident, and specialty camper as well as an educator, the public editor of the National Education Writers Association, and a new mom. Perlstein is an accomplished author of two books, Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers and Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. She has also written for The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun op-ed pages, The New York Times, Family Circle, and other major publications.

Originally published in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.