Two toddlers sitting in a laundry basket.

Musings on Tweens and Pre-Teens

Two toddlers sitting in a laundry basket.
They don’t quite fit in the baskets any more.

This week I have a twelve-year-old and a ten-year-old.* Preteens! Double digits without the word “teen” actually in the number!

It’s such a funny age, tween. Literally between two types of ages, clearly a child and clearly a teenager. They’ve gotten too cool for some things, old enough to be embarrassed by a mom who still thinks of them as her babies. But not completely, and it takes some thinking to figure out which of those things they’ve really outgrown.

Like I was Easter basket shopping last week. Now I have never gone overboard with Easter gifts—it’s far too close to birthdays in this house, for one thing—but I like to throw a couple of non-candy things in the baskets each year, too. Surprise figurine bags and boxes were perfect in years past, but when I saw them in the store this year I thought, “Do they even still like those? I’m not sure any of these would interest them anymore.” But would they be disappointed if they didn’t get anything non-edible? I was frozen for a moment, trying to figure out what they had outgrown and hadn’t.

Not that growing out of things is always bad. The 12-year-old is super-sensitive and fears the dentist. We have had many meltdowns in dental waiting rooms over the years. The other day, although still appearing nervous, he was perfectly polite and obedient as the hygienist called his name, for the first time in 12 years. This is a pleasing progression for everyone involved.

When I referred to him as a child a few minutes later, he corrected me, “pre-teen.” “That’s still a child,” I protested. “Just an older child.”

Indeed, he still likes to cuddle with his mama, and that’s something I’d rather he not outgrow… though I know it’s on its way.

As a children’s librarian, I’m often frustrated by age labels, particularly when people argue over what’s “appropriate for children.” What’s a child? When a grown-up literary award has a “young people’s category,” it lumps children’s and YA books together, and, perhaps because it’s more similar to what the non-kid-lit judges know, the award almost always goes to a teen book, and actual children’s books are ignored. But on the other hand, when someone talks about “protecting children from certain ideas,” they also lump children and teens together, but this time projecting a young child’s naivete onto teenagers who are most likely all too well aware of whatever concept the adult thinks they should be protected from.

So what’s appropriate for a teenager to read is totally different from what a first grader should read, and that said, what one child is ready for may be entirely different from another child their same age. My oldest is more sensitive than my youngest, which has been handy because I find they’ve both become ready for stories at various levels of scary at about the same time.

Anyway, my library has an extra section in our Young People’s collection. J FIC is your basic chapter books for elementary students. YA FIC has the hot teen novels. But in between, we have Intermediate Fiction. It’s what publishing calls “upper middle grade,” and what I describe to parents as “for when you’ve mastered decoding words and need to move on from simple chapter books, but you’re not quite ready for the content of teen books.” Which sounds a little ominous, as if the YA section is nothing but sex, drugs, and war. But it doesn’t have to be dramatic CONTENT WARNING content. It’s just that the teen mindset is different from the child mindset. Teenagerhood is about figuring out who you are and how you fit in the broader world. Childhood needs are simpler: safety, friendship, family. And upper-middle-grade, Intermediate fiction—tweendom in general—straddles that line.

Pre-teens are striking out here and there, becoming their own people outside of the nest, but they’re still not ready to reject the shelter of your wings. As parents, we somehow have to figure out how to let them strike out when they want to while still always offering the comfort of the nest, for whenever they need it.

My ten-year-old commandeered a pair of my shoes a couple of months ago. Granted, I have relatively small feet. But it’s still odd when your kid can steal your clothes and wear them like their own.

And then you still take that kid’s hand when you cross a parking lot because you’ve got to make sure they navigate the moving maze of vehicles safely.

Wait, I think. This girl is wearing my shoes. This girl meets her friends across the street in the park on her own. This girl actively and vocally ships her favorite fictional couples and gossips with her friends on the phone. Does she still really want to hold my hand in the parking lot?

But she takes my hand, naturally and unselfconsciously. Preteens haven’t entirely outgrown being your babies after all.

*Officially. I know I said they were 12 and 10 a few weeks ago, but that was an approximation for brevity’s sake.

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