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Inside the Mind of a Tween

Learn how to understand the mind and logic of your tween child.

Inside the Mind of a Tween

Tweens see the world in black and white and have great difficulty discerning shades of gray. Accordingly, they consider people nice or mean, situations fair or not, and can easily categorize almost everything else in the world under the headings of "good" and "bad." They are not rigid, however, because they change their minds at the drop of a hat and have no problem deciding that someone they previously regarded as nice is really mean, or that something that they thought was terribly unfair is really just, after all.
Accordingly, their opinions can change dramatically from moment to moment and day to day. Parents are often mystified by what they see as their child's wild mood changes, but often the changes have little to do with emotion and everything to do with calm, rational tween logic. When the "bad" kid who has been a long-term enemy does something nice, he can instantly become a "great" person, while the long-term best friend can just as suddenly be consigned to the category of a complete "loser."


Your child may no longer scream, "I hate you!" during a fit of temper as she did during the toddler years, but as the parent of a tween, you are likely to notice that you can be transformed from the greatest mom or dad in the world to the meanest ogre on the planet in the blink of an eye.

All-or-Nothing Logic

Only with great difficulty do tweens grasp that an idea can be partially true and partially false at the same time. Holding the tension of opposites is a painful endeavor, and if a contradiction is pointed out to them, they literally wiggle with discomfort before shrugging the problem off. For instance, ask your tween how a teacher can be a total creep given that he did something very nice, and you're likely to get a vague "He's okay, I guess" answer. Tweens can verbally acknowledge the existence of "sort of," "somewhat," and "sometimes," but what they really mean is, "I don't know, but I'll agree with anything so we can get onto a subject I can make sense of." The notion that people can be nice in some ways and mean in others, or that fairness and goodness depend on the situation, seems constantly to slip from their mental grasp.

The Black Cat Phenomenon

Tweens have a strong superstitious streak. They may conceal it from adults and peers if they sense disapproval, but it colors their thinking. Young tweens may laugh to think that little kids actually believe all that foolishness about the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, while remaining convinced that St. Nicholas and Rudolph, in fact, have a workshop at the North Pole. A nine-year-old's proof positive was, "He brought me a pogo stick for Christmas. My mom never could have afforded that."

At age eight, tweens may be afraid to go home after stepping on a crack for fear they will indeed find that their mother has been carted off to the hospital. At age twelve, girls recite incantations to conjure Mad Mary at slumber parties and are terrified for weeks afterward because they glimpsed the bloody murderess herself in a friend's bedroom mirror. Meanwhile, boys spout facts about aliens and life on other planets. Both boys and girls worry about walking under a ladder, allowing a black cat to cross their path, and having to endure seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror.


Part of the magic of childhood is the belief in magic itself. If you feel compelled to get your tween to stick to hard facts and cold logic, buy her a magic kit. That way, she can at least trade the fun of believing in magic for being a magic maker.

Thoughts Set in Stone

By teen and adult standards, even the brightest tweens are extremely concrete in their thinking. They have a marked tendency to be very literal, which may partly explain why puns so delight them. The idea that the same word can have two meanings that have nothing to do with each other fascinates them, so the joke, "What's black and white and red all over? A newspaper!" strikes them as hilarious.

The fact that tweens are so literal and concrete creates endless conflicts with parents who have a hard time comprehending that a child who is sprouting hair on his legs can't readily generalize and think abstractly. When you find the floor of your child's closet strewn with moldy banana peels and pluck stinky socks from under his bed two seconds after he swore he cleaned his room, don't assume he was trying to put something over you. Out of sight is out of mind for this age group. Plus, the big unanswered question that lurks in every tween's mind is, "What's a few old banana peels and stinky socks under the bed got to do with clean?"

Do your duty and explain it because your tween needs to know about cleanliness and hygiene. But don't be upset the next time you find apple cores in his desk drawer and underwear stuffed under the bed. During your last discussion you said bananas and socks, not apple cores and underwear. You should have said fruit and clothing if that's what you meant! Because you feel frustrated and angry, don't assume your tween was trying to make you feel that way! He is still young, doesn't think like you do, and has lots to learn.

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