August 8, 2018
Lots of things crossed my mind as I cringed and smiled my way through Bo Burnham’s amazing new film, Eighth Grade.
First – and this particular sentiment was a near-constant refrain – I found myself swimming in gratitude that I was no longer in 8th grade myself.
Next, I found myself trying to remember my own 8th grade experience. As the movie plunged forward through the sheer force of determination and courage of its admirable protagonist, I had to admit to myself that I had suppressed an awful lot of memories from my early teen dramas.
“How,” I asked myself again and again, “does anyone get through these loathsome years?” Burnham ties much of early adolescent suffering to the bewildering world of social media, but my sense is that even before all those 1’s and 0’s crowded our developmental landscape, the whole being-on-the-cusp-of-adolescence was filled with some pretty terrible moments. This recognition is all the more potent, given that Burnham’s early fame was based on some 8th grade humor. If you look at his early YouTube performances, back when he was roughly the age of the protagonist of his film, you can recognize his insecurities as well as his talents.
I’d like to take advantage of the celebration of Eighth Grade to discuss the psychological significance of these early teen years. We could start by noting that the absence of films depicting this particular age is pretty striking. Could it be that the stunning awkwardness of these years makes it just too difficult for us to tackle? There’s evidence that many of us find these years terribly trying even in the absence of formal psychiatric syndromes. But, if that’s the case, then it means we owe it to ourselves and to our children to make sure we are thinking honestly about all of the discomfort as well as the nostalgia that these years afford. Let’s start by describing what we know about early adolescence itself.
What is Early Adolescence?
Roughly speaking, early adolescence is marked by the onset of puberty. Because puberty doesn’t happen all at once, pinpointing the start of adolescence is not a straightforward task. It certainly doesn’t correlate with school. Think of the kids you knew when you went from 6th to around 9th grade. There were boys who looked like they were 7 years old and there were boys who looked like Paul Bunyan. There were girls who looked like they’d be more at home with Barbies, and there were girls you’d swear were old enough to vote. All those kids, all those different looks and body shapes, were equally shoved into the same cognitive tasks that each grade’s curriculum demands. No wonder middle school kids seem like a mess. Those same biological changes are affecting brain development, as well.
Adolescence is characterized by the normal destruction of gray matter and a corresponding growth of white matter. Our brains start to clear out information that feels less important for social and biological survival, and starts to connect more relevant information in more intricate ways. This information is held in the remaining gray matter and the connections occur through white matter highways. This allows the early adolescent to begin exploring the confusing world of cognitive and emotional abstraction. We read Romeo and Juliet around 9th grade because the ability to both relate to and to be critical of the impulsive desires of adolescent love requires those young brains to tease away the concrete world of Power Rangers and to put in its place more sophisticated narratives.
“How can Romeo love Juliet?” kids ask. “They just met!” At the same time, 9th graders are painfully and perhaps even shamefully aware that they pine, virtually every day, under the weight of heart-wrenching crushes. These two opposing ideas – that Juliet has no business loving someone she barely knows, and that there is a girl two desks forward and one to the right in your English class that you think of every night as you examine (and perhaps even burst) your burgeoning zits – just aren’t possible in 4th or 5th grade. With the capacity to embrace opposing ideas comes considerable cognitive and emotional dissonance. Therein lies the suffering of the middle school years.
What Really Matters in 8th Grade? Belonging.
Eighth Grade, both as a film as well and as an epoch in life, is burdened with rich and varied suffering. It’s wonderful to see a film about kids that is so richly painful and simultaneously fulfilling. In fact, the universal acclaim that the film has enjoyed lends itself to making sense of the suffering using what developmental psychologists like Gil Noam have called the “Psychology of Belonging.”
Noam points out that we tend to think of adolescence as a period of self-discovery. His contention, however, is that this individual self-discovery really only happens in later adolescence. Early adolescence is all about being members of a group. Early teens want nothing more than to belong, to be popular, to have a set group that they can count on in the cafeteria and on the weekends and to respond quickly on the social media of choice. Parents will get nowhere when they console their 13-year-olds with reassurances that popularity won’t always matter. When you’re in 8th grade, it can feel like nothing but popularity matters. That’s the importance of belonging.
Eight Grade is worth seeing because it reminds us that it is during these difficult years that we first learn how to cope with the universal human experience of being left out of the group. From the standpoint of psychiatry, this recognition has all sorts of relevance. The coping you start to master when you’re 12 years old helps you to tolerate the bumps that will come later in life. While it’s true that older teens are more prone to the diagnoses that psychiatrists and psychologists treat, that’s not the same thing as saying that younger adolescents don’t suffer. As any honest reckoning of these years demonstrate, early adolescents suffer all the time. Even if they seem like they can’t tolerate the most fleeting parental eye contact, they need to know that we adults support them, will guide them, and that we have lived through these years as well.
That’s not, however, the explicit message you can readily give to most kids. It’s too straight-forward and can seem unmasking and shaming to a 12-year-old. What works better is subtle but clearly stated reminders that you are ready, at all times, to help. That you won’t give up on your 8th grader, despite all of the surliness and the eye-rolls and the slammed bedroom doors and the tantrums.
Those 8th graders are going to need you, and you’ll need to be there for them. That’s what Eighth Grade helps us parents to keep in mind.