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The secret lives of middle schoolers

By Marnie Hunter

"Not Much Just Chillin'" author Linda Perlstein spent a year observing middle-school students in suburban Maryland.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- For many adults, the idea of going back to middle school sounds about as appealing as a trip to the dentist for a root canal.

Author Linda Perlstein, 32, actually enjoyed her own middle school years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- a fact she said made spending a year immersed in the daily lives of 12- and 13-year-olds palatable as she researched her book "Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers." And this time around, Perlstein joked, she was "the coolest kid in school."

Her job as an education reporter for The Washington Post puts Perlstein in regular contact with kids of all ages, but she's most interested in middle schoolers.

"I think kids that age are so much fun. They can be very open with the right person. They're hilarious, they're just -- I had a blast with them," Perlstein said during a recent interview in Atlanta.

Finding a way into the lives and minds of typical American middle schoolers involved a move for Perlstein to Columbia, Maryland. She took a leave from the newspaper and spent a year at Wilde Lake Middle School, where she moved between classrooms, students' homes, swim practice and gymnastics. On Saturday nights she went to the skating rink to watch some of the dramas of middle school unfold.

Some things haven't changed.

"Crushes, like going out with someone that you never talk to, and your friends doing the asking out and breaking up, I went through that," Perlstein said.

'Freak' patrol

'Freak' patrol

She was surprised by the sexual concepts that seem to be woven into the minds of middle school students.

"It's not so much that more kids are having sex -- I don't think they are -- it's just that it sure is part of their vocabulary and psyche in a way that it didn't used to be."

In "Not Much Just Chillin'" Perlstein explains that the phenomenon of "freak" dancing, where a boy approaches a girl from behind and grinds his groin against her, has trickled down to middle school.

"The most shocking thing, the single most shocking five-second thing, is to see a bunch of 12-year-olds freak dance," Perlstein said.

She said she worried about how these very impersonal forays into personal contact might affect romantic relationships students may cultivate a few years down the road.

Yet despite the discoveries that may make parents cringe, Perlstein said the kids are fairly well-adjusted.

"Even though they'll tell you, 'Oh, school is awful' and 'I hate my life, my life sucks,' they seem pretty content."

Establishing strong communication with a child long before he or she reaches middle-school age is one of the best ways to navigate those years, Perlstein said.

"You really have to set up a home where you show warmth and love every day and you do things as a family, and you have conversations -- not interviews, not inquiries," she said. "Because once your kid is 12, they'll totally reject that."

Giving your child some independence is critical, but taking it literally when they say "Leave me alone!" is a mistake.

"[Parents] think their kids can dress themselves and they can feed themselves and they can let themselves in the door, and I think a kid that age really needs as much if not more time with their parents than they did when they were 8 or 10," Perlstein said.

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