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

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But before parents despair about the models kids absorb from the culture, they can take heart from the messages 13- year-olds seem to be taking from their parents. In TIME's poll, more than half described their relationship with their parents as being excellent, better than with their teachers or classmates or siblings. A majority described their parents as being very involved in their lives and knowing just about everything that went on, while fewer than 10% described their parents as uninvolved and clueless. They may disagree a bit about when it's appropriate for boys and girls to start going out together: the majority of 13-year-olds say 12 to 15 is the right age, but most parents say 16 to 17 is more like it. But three-quarters have not started dating yet, and 60% say people should postpone sex until marriage. That suggests that however grown up 13-year-olds wish to appear, they don't yet want to act the way they look. Even as kids are exposed to more adult messages, they seem to be acting on them less. For all the headlines about an epidemic of oral sex in middle schools, the evidence does not back up the anecdotes. For instance, a PEOPLE/ NBC News poll of teens, conducted early this year, found that 12% of 13- and 14-year-olds said they'd had oral sex, but three times that many admitted they didn't know what oral sex was.

"Parents can only advise their children or point them in the right direction," Anne Frank wrote in her diary in 1944. "Ultimately people shape their own characters." Today's 13-year-olds, growing up in a world more connected, more competitive, more complex than the one their parents had to navigate as kids, so far show every sign of rising to the challenge. --With reporting by Amanda Bower and Jeremy Caplan/ New York

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