What Does It Mean to Be 13?

What's on their minds? TIME takes an inside look at an age of mystery and challenge

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AMANDA MARSALIS FOR TIME

What does it mean to be 13, backstage adults, watching on tiptoe, waiting to go onstage?

Some things about this age of change are unchanging. If childhood is about magic, 13 introduces mystery: Joan of Arc began hearing celestial voices when she was 13. Into the age of innocence, 13 brings sexuality: early versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story were tales of seduction in which her cape was a symbol of menstruation. Shakespeare's Juliet was 13, unready for love perhaps but, by the standards of her age, more than ready for marriage. Tom Sawyer is thought to have been 13 when he got "engaged" to Becky Thatcher. It is an age of prodigy: Anne Frank received her diary as a present on her 13th birthday; Bobby Fischer was 13 when he became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Chess Championship--within two years he was an international grand master. It is the age of childhood leaning forward and adulthood holding back, when the world gets suddenly closer, the colors more vivid, the rules subject to never ending argument.

Ask 13-year-olds what they want for their birthday, and the answers range from a puppy to a laptop to getting their belly button pierced to "my girlfriend's virginity." New ballet slippers. My own room. Cash. Thirteen-year-olds have more power than discipline, more weapons than shields. They demand more respect from their parents and show them less. The Motion Picture Association of America understood the nature of the age when it invented the PG rating--parental guidance suggested--as though it knew that from here on, parents can guide, they can suggest, but kids are making more decisions, taking fewer orders. They have absorbed the family's values because the years of Total Parental Control are coming to an end.

TIME set out to study what life at 13 is like in 2005, what has changed and what hasn't, what helps 13-year-olds and what haunts them--and where they see themselves headed. In a TIME poll of this age group, in which 501 were surveyed online, two-thirds said being a teenager is harder for them than it was for their parents. It's fair to ask whether any teenage generation has ever thought otherwise, but every age has new anxieties. In a shift from just five years ago, when the new-millennial teens were generally optimistic about the future, years of war and terrorism have left their mark. Almost half, or 46%, believe that by the time they are their parents' age, the U.S. will be a worse place to live in than it is now. In their responses, the fears and pressures and appetites seep through, as does the gap between how their parents see them and how they perceive themselves. That may be the one aspect of 13-year-old life that never changes.

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