The Tween Drama GauntletMay 17, 2023 06:22AM ● By Matthew Jones
I recently went to my friend’s daughter’s ninth birthday pool party. I’m used to parties with kids the ages of my children—3 and almost 6. Those parties make sense to me; the kids play with each other in little knots and worry about when the cake will come. The crowd of 8- or so 9-year-olds was a completely different story. We’re not talking teens-and-puberty levels of madness (thank God) but it was alien to me. They were like a hive mind—descending on the snacks in a swarm, then all jumping into the pool, then tearing off to sing together inside.
What surprised me most, though, was the music choices. The day before, I joked with a friend about going to the party and they told me to expect a lot of Taylor Swift. Makes sense, right? But no, there was no Tay-Tay to be heard. There was music playing, sure. Some random family-friendly playlist. There was a little half-hearted singing along to some pop hits and kid-friendly holdouts like “It’s Raining Tacos.” But nothing compared to the mouth-frothing fervor with which the tween multitudes clamored for: Jack Black. They wanted nothing more than to hear his signature song as Bowser from The Super Mario Bros Movie, “Peaches.” Yes, these children demanded nothing less than Mr. Black’s over-the-top lovesick crooning about a video game character. They wanted it on repeat. They sang along as loud as they could.
But the party wasn’t just swimming and singing, there was some drama. I believe that every kid ultimately wants to do the right thing. Each kid has an internal sense of right and wrong. But that sense is still getting calibrated as kids are growing up. This group of 9-ish-year-olds was no different. This incomplete calibration showed up in the little burst of drama that I stumbled into in the center of the pool party.
The hostess of the party asked the kids to stay in the basement (which opens out onto the pool deck). It makes sense—keep the dripping, Cheetos-encrusted walking stain makers limited to a narrow range of destruction. Naturally, the newly-minted 9-year-old birthday girl wanted to show her friends around her house. The majority of the kids followed her along, their internal right/wrong detectors temporarily dampened, assuming that it wasn’t really a big deal. (And they weren’t really wrong about that either.) But one girl, let’s call her Paige, wanted to follow the straight and narrow. That’s fine, but I think her calibration was a bit off in the other direction. As kids in her position often do, she went and told the adult (not a bad choice) and neener-neenered to all the other kids that they were in trouble (a less good choice.) The other kids started calling her "snitch" and getting in her face about it.
This is what I gathered from Paige’s story when she came crying to one of the grownups there, followed by a knot of other kids trying to defend themselves. It was clear said grownup was flabbergasted by the drama. I jumped in to help along with another nearby dad, figuring that three out-of-our-depth adults added up to one competent parent. I prepared to address the gathered tween masses.
I made respectful and sincere eye contact. I kept my body language non-hostile. I readied myself to speak with a calm, assertive voice. Then I immediately dropped into a heart-racing panic. I started stringing sentences together with the sweaty faux-calm of the work presentation that you forgot about until five minutes ago. While I briefly had their attention, I tried to thread the needle by saying something useful but not too preachy. My authority as an adult wouldn’t last long, especially considering most of them had no idea who I was.
I kicked it off by validating everyone’s feelings (a good way to start). I pointed out that Paige wasn’t wrong in wanting to listen to the rules of the party, but maybe didn’t need to rub it in anyone’s face. The other kids, in turn, weren’t being particularly bad but could have been kinder. It’s hard to remember to be kind when it’s easy to follow the herd. I suggested that the aggrieved parties separate for a little bit to cool off. Miraculously, all the kids seemed to accept the judgment.
I had done it. I had walked through the fire of tween drama for the first time and come out unburned. This was the first significant encounter I’d had with that crowd, and I’m pretty happy with how it went. Lord knows that in the coming years, puberty will dump a bucket of gasoline on that fire for these kids. But for now, I’m a little more confident as a dad after surviving this birthday party.