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Parenting Tips for the Middle School Years (Part 2 of 2)

Air date 10/07/2015

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Dr. Kevin Leman and Mrs. Jean Daly offer parents of middle schoolers advice and encouragement in a discussion based on Dr. Leman's new book, Planet Middle School: Helping Your Child Through the Peer Pressure, Awkward Moments & Emotional Drama. (Part 2 of 2)

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Episode Transcript



Kevin Leman: You want your kid to be a homey, okay? So the home needs to be the place where they get encouragement. If all they get is ragged on and should on—you should do this, you should do that, you should do this, you should do that—the kid is going to fall prey to that kid who comes alongside of your kid at school and is an instant friend. And that same friend says, "Hey, take a hit of this. Smoke this. Snort this." And see what we're up against?

End Teaser

John Fuller: Well thoughts about a challenging season for kids and parents from our guest on the last "Focus on the Family" radio program. That's Dr. Kevin Leman, and he's back again to share more about what he calls Planet Middle School. I'm John Fuller, and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: You know, John, Dr. Leman's insights into the life of a middle schooler are spot on. I mean they're hard things to hear as a parent, because sometimes we're not doing it in the way that we should, and we stay in that rut. And it's great to hear perspective that's brutally honest, which we did last time from Dr. Leman. So I you missed that, I'd go get the download or get the app on your smart phone and listen to it, because there was so much rich content there was so much rich content there for the parent of a middle schooler to think about. And we're going to continue that discussion today, touching on the subjects of peer pressure and bullying, and just those awkward moments for your middle schooler and what you can do as a mom and a dad to help that child transition well.

John: And I so appreciate Dr. Leman's insight and his biblical wisdom. And he's been here dozens of times, a perennial favorite for our listeners, because he brings heart and perspective and great humor along the way as well.

And of the more than 50 books he's written, Planet Middle School is one of the more recent ones, and forms the foundation.

Jim, I remember just a couple of months ago when I first dropped Zane off for sixth grade, he was going from being kind of the big man on campus at the elementary school to the little fish in a huge world. And I mean it's so obvious when he got there. I dropped him off and thought, He's going to really have to work at fitting in here and understanding and understanding all the different layers of seniors and the big guys, and he's not one of them. It's a tough time.

Jim: Oh, it is. And that, again, we covered some of that last time and it would be great to listen to that. But it is a very difficult time. All the body changes that are occurring. And I want to get into it and talk to Kevin about it.


Jim: So Kevin, welcome back to Focus.

Kevin: Hey, thank you.

Jim: And also I've asked Jean, the mom of a middle schooler, my wonderful wife, to join us. Jean, it's great to have you here.

Jean Daly: Thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

Jim: We ended last time on this whole topic of bullying, and how brutal junior high can be in that way. And we talked about the new digital age when kids can do that electronically and start rumors and just be really harsh. You had a great example in your book, Planet Middle School, about a girl named Rosa. Tell us about that.

Kevin: Yes. Little Rosa. She was a kid new to a school, okay, and again in middle school anything that puts you out of the mainstream, you're fodder—F-O-D-D-E-R—to be chewed up, spit out, used, abused, whatever. And so it wasn't long before the little in group spotted this new kid and came after her and ragged on her and made fun of her. And she…she ferreted out real quickly who's the leader—and you can usually see the leader. There's usually a gang. They hang out, five or six of them, but you can spot the leader, okay?

And after these kids were really unnecessarily mean to her, she just looked at the ringleader and said, "Wow, you must not feel very good about yourself to be mean to a kid like me who is just new in the school," and walked away.

You see, that's called hitting where it hurts. It's psychological disclosure. And for years behind closed doors with kids who were attention-getters I would say things like, "Wow, you must really need an awful lot of attention." To schoolteachers I would say, "You know what? This kid acts up in the classroom, say, 'Everybody put your work down. I want you all to st… stare at Timothy for just a couple of minutes.'" We'd take two minutes out and stare at Timothy. Then, like Pavlovian dogs, when the bell rings and the kids spring up to go to recess, teacher says, "Excuse me. Everybody stay in their seat. We've got to make up the two minutes we wasted looking at Timothy."

Now if you believe in peer pressure, see it's keeping that what I like to call the tennis ball life in the right court. So you can give your kids some psychological ammo to fend off these bullies. And if your kid is being bullied, be clear on this: don't wait. Go and talk to teacher first; make them aware of it; and then trust that teacher, she's going to deal with it. If that's a good teacher, he or she is going to get back to you right away. If you don't get results almost immediately, go to the principal and pound on that desk. And teachers and principals today are very tuned in to how bad and devastating bullying can be, so don't let that slide.

John: Kevin, talk to the parent who might feel like their child is actually the bully, or they've been called by the school and—oh, I didn't like that. My son is being a bully? What's the conversation with the child like?

Kevin: Well again, hooray for the parent who will address the kid and not defend the kid to the school administration that my son or my daughter wouldn't do that. You have to, I think, trust those educators, and come to your kid and say, "You know, I just got some very discouraging news about you. I've got to tell you, it not only made my stomach turn, but I … I … I'm just very disappointed to hear what I heard. Now let me tell you what I heard."

Now in all probability, that kid is probably going to deny that in some way. "Honey, you know you can … you can lie to yourself. That's easy to do. But I've researched this. I had some eyewitnesses. The school has done their homework. And again, I'm very disappointed."

Now here's the follow-up to that. Forty-five minutes later, that same kid that you talked to wants to be driven to his buddy Jake's house to shoot some hoops. "Hey Mom, would you drive me over to Jake's?"

"I don't feel like driving you anywhere right now." Glib response. Walk away.

Now what are we trying to do? We're trying to rake coals over the kid. "Dr. Leman, aren't you making that child feel guilty?" I hope so, because that's good guilt. I want that kid to know that this is not something I'm just letting go. This is important. See kids gotta, kids gotta learn that, but parents let it slide because they're their advocate and they snow plow the roads of life for kids.

Jim: Mm, uh, you know also Kevin, middle school, that drama that seems to … that seems to all of a sudden appear. Why does drama and middle school kind of go hand in hand? I mean—and we've got boys, but I … I can tell you the hormones in boys also produce a bit of weirdness. (Laughter) Our friends that have daughters talk about the girls going off the reservation, but wow, boys can have issues, too.

Kevin: Well let's just—I don't want to talk about your family, but let's just take a kid. We'll call him Trent. (Laughter) And Trent has a hissy-fit about something, you know, and he's slamming things around and all that. Uh, psychologically I always say to a parent, if you're kid's having a temper-tantrum you step over the child—there is a great temptation to step on the child, which is an illegal act; please don't do that—and walk away. You defuse the outburst.

Jean: Yes.

Kevin: You don't go charging in there with your sails open, because if they're blowing the wind your way, I can tell you how this one's going to work out; you're going to have a headache for a long time. So you learn to psychologically step over that. Anything from, "Wow, you seem really upset. Hey, after you've stopped making a fool of yourself, I'm going to be back in the family room. If you want to talk about it, cool. If you don't, I understand." I give a kid a choice. "You want to talk about it?" You know when a kid gets upset, a young kid a sixth-grader, his project isn't right, he doesn't want to hand it in, it's not perfect enough, a simple comment, "Honey, I can see you're really upset about the fact that this thing isn't perfect, but I have to tell you the truth. I mean I like it. But again, that's just my opinion."

So I know it's a big thing to you, so I'm not denying the kid's feelings. That's what I'm trying to—"Okay, I see you're upset. I see it's important to you. But as your mom who gave birth to you, really, it's not a big thing to me, but I guess it is to you. I wish you the best. I like it."

Jim: So your point is avoid the drama.

Kevin: Yes. Oh, you'll have drama, and when a kid rolls their eyes and all those—especially girls who, you know, just stop them in the middle. "Oh honey, oh, that was so good. Do that again, honey. Do it in slow motion."

Jean: That's good.

Kevin: Would you do that in slow motion?

Jean: That's good.

Jim: So it's a little more humor.

Kevin: A little humor, yeah.

Jim: You like that?

Jean: Oh, well, the audience can't see that my husband turned to me and is giving me that look.

Jim: Your husband.

Jean: Yes.

John: Well, there's such disrespect in some of those behaviors.

Jean: Well, absolutely. And I have done a much better job, I really have made great strides in this area of defusing, because, right, initially it just felt disrespectful.

Kevin: Well, when one of your kids says something really stupid, really dumb, what is a typical Jean response?

Jim: (Laughing)

Jean: Well, give me an example of what's really dumb.

Kevin: "I don't see anything wrong with smoking pot."

Jim: Oh, that's a big one.

Jean: Oh, well then I launch into my lecture against. I have all my facts and the data.

Kevin: I know, I mean I…I'm going way out there, but anything they say. Kids say stupid things every day.

Jim: "I don't need to do my homework."

Kevin: Every day.

Jim: "I get it. I don't need to do my homework."

Kevin: Yeah, but could you say to a kid who says something really stupid, "Wow, wow, you could be right"?

Jean: Well, okay, yes.

Kevin: "You could be right." It's doesn't mean you're right. In other words, some of the things that kids volley out there, they're just … they're just a little cheese for us to walk in their little trap.

Jean: Absolutely. And … and you have to be so intentional about it, because I—my first response is to argue.

Kevin: Is a reaction.

Jean: Is a reaction that I'm in charge. I know what I'm talking about. I'm smarter than you. I have more life experience than you. And it doesn't work.

Kevin: Let me tell you. I do a lot of speaking, okay? I spoke at the Pentagon this year. I speak at churches. I speak at the Western Association of Orthopedic Surgeons. I mean all diverse groups. I was at Pepsi-Cola and talking to their management team back in Armonk, New York. The guy named Mike Lorelli said to me something I never forgot. He said, "Kevin, you have to let your people win." And so many times as parents we just want to win. When do the kids get to win? When do the kids get to say what they feel about certain topics in life? And if you listen to them—and again, I have conversations with my 23-year-old right now I'm scratching my head saying, Where have I gone wrong, Lord? This girl has some ideas that are far out from where I think about life.

But you know what? You listen to them. Now things that parents can do with these awkward years. Most of these kids are not well organized. School really mandates that you're organized. I go this far with parents. Hey parents, you can help your kid get organized. Put the subject matter, put some things—get some different-colored folders. I mean some kids need some help, so I'm not saying just let the kid fly out there by themselves, because some kids need that parental help and they need that parental guidance. And sometimes when they ask you a question, rather than just give them, quote, "the right answer," I would come back with, "You know, I'd be glad to respond to that, but I'm curious. Where are you on that? I really want to know what you feel."

Jean: That's good.

Kevin: So you invite the kids in for conversation. You're not just always telling them what to do. And that's what I try to get a hold of, through to the parents.

Jim: Kevin, let me ask you about this, because so often when you're parenting this age group, you know, as a parent you don't have a lot of the years of experience. You haven't seen your parents, perhaps, at 18, 19, and 20. They're still 11, 12, 13, 14. And we always talk about when you're dealing with the children in that spot not to allow them to think this moment, this catastrophe is going to set the tone for the rest of their lives. But we often do that as parents with these kids …that we think this F in math or this disappointment is the end of their life. We may not say it as a parent that way, but we act that way, like this is the most catastrophic thing that could ever happen. They were caught stealing at the store. They were—just fill in the blank with whatever it might be. We don't ourselves hold the long view of what they're going to be like at 21, 22. Kind of your story.

Kevin: Yeah. Well, I think it's important that every parents realizes that your kid needs daily dosages of vitamin E, which is encouragement. And sometimes when these things come, these things that are just so catastrophic—I mean think of it for just a second. Is it going to make a big difference next week? Or next year? Or next month? In all probability, no.

So one of the little handles on , which is my website, we have podcasts on there, and they have been absolutely popular with young parents. And one of the things I try and teach parents on there, I have these little pocket answers, I call them. And one of them is a really a good one. "I'm sure you can handle it." And so when kids come and they whine like little stuck pigs, life's been unfair to them, et cetera—and by the way, if you have a whiner, you need a whine cellar. Keep that in mind.

But you know if you really want to help the kid, I think you say, "Honey, you know what? I'm sure you can handle that." And you're putting the tennis ball back in their life. You say, "And by the way, if you need some help, you know I'd always be willing to pitch in and help, but I think you can handle this."

Now that's the vitamin E. It has an expectation. I say treat kids in the way you expect them to behave. In all probability, they are going to behave that way. That's how we run our school, the Leman Academy of Excellence. We expect you to behave. We had our first assembly, and we honored first responders way back on September 11th, and I marveled. They asked me to speak. I spoke for two minutes. I said, "I just want to say one thing. Did you notice the 525 kids sitting on the gym floor? Did you see that there wasn't one teacher that had to tell one kid to keep their hands to themselves or be quiet or be attentive? We have expectations for your kids at this school that they will, you know, conduct themselves in a … in a reasonable manner. They will be respectful to other people."

So it starts with us adults, I think, of setting the high—you'll like this, Jean. I'm not setting the high bar down here. I'm setting it up here. I want … expect my kids to do well.

Jean: Yes, yes.

Kevin: I used to tell the kids when they went out at night, "Hey, don't forget you're a Leman." And somebody once nailed me on a show on that and they said, "What does that mean?"

I said, "I don't have a clue. It just means, 'Remember, you're a Leman.'" In other words, there was an expe…expectancy on our part that you would behave yourself.

Jean: Well, and I copied you. I copy you on many things,--

Kevin: That's fine.

Jean:-- but exactly that. I said that probably six weeks ago. I said--

Kevin: Yeah, I think it's great.

Jean: "Remember you're a Daly."

Kevin: There you go.

Jean: And I remembered you had said that and that you had said you weren't even sure what that meant, and--

Jim: That's why our little one came to us and said, "What does that mean, Dad, to be a Daly?" I said, "I don't know."

John: Ask your mom.

Jim: Yeah, I didn't know why he was asking.

Kevin: You know it means—it really means, "As imperfect as your mom and I are, we do our best to honor you guys, to listen to you. You're important. I'd take a bullet for you; that's how much I love you." And I think that has to come across to kids that there are some cheerleader aspects of being a parent. But today we live with false praise where a kid does nothing and the parents are cheering crazily for their kid who gave it a lick and a holler.

So I want … I want the kid to get back to the family; I want jobs to be done and all those kind of things. That helps the kid identify with home so that it's not a hotel; it's a home that kid lives in.

Jim: Right.

Jean: Well, and Dr. Leman, I mean your personal story has been so encouraging to me while I'm in the middle of it. And you do, as a parent, you can think and work well--

Jim: What does that mean, for those that don't know?

Jean: You can worry that your child is never going to go to college--

Jim: That he's failing.

Jean: --and not going to be a productive member of society. We worry about those things, but Dr. Leman, I mean, you did not have a stellar academic career--

Jim: Early on.

Jean: --early on.

Kevin: I'm holding in my hand, Jean, my ninth-grade report card where in one six-week session I flunked every subject. Final grades: 22 in algebra, 57 in algebra, circled 65 meant in New York state, where I grew up, that you actually didn't pass, but we're sick of you.

Jim: That was a circled 65.

Kevin: Yeah, and I graduated fourth from the bottom of my class in high school. My guidance counselor told me he couldn't get in reform school. My wife's head nurse said, "Don't associate with that janitor. He'll never amount to anything." And yet I had a mom and dad—a mom who prayed for me every day of my life—a mom and dad who believed in me every day of my life. And they had very little reason to believe. But they prayed, they covered me with prayer every day. And for you parents, don't push your kids. Failure is important. Grace. Why is grace so abundant? Could it be that we need it? Could it be that our kids need it?

Jean: Absolutely.

Kevin: You've just got to love them, expect the best of them. When they goof up, you pull them behind closed doors and say, "Hey, that wasn't cool." And if there's a consequence, fine. I have no problem with that. That's called discipline. But if you love your kid, you discipline them.

Jim: Kevin, let me ask you this, because at-risk children, you know again I think many parents may errantly believe their kids are in that wrong place, but many parents, too, have the right hunch about their kids. What does that at-risk behavior look like, and how can parents know the signs and then begin to engage in a different way?

Kevin: That's a good question. Number one, I have no problem with telling a pediatrician, "Next time my kid's in for a physical, I want you to do a urine specimen. I want to know if there's any drugs in his system." I'd be a smart parent. What you see, the tell-tale signs of the seventh-grader, the eighth-grader in particular where the grades, where this kid used to be a good student, they just flat drop off the table. That kid is smoking weed, okay? I'd bet two of my kids and maybe my wife on that subject.

And parents want to deny that. Heroin, today, is huge in our high schools, especially the high schools that are affluent.

John: Christian schools?

Kevin: All over, yes. Christian—Christian school is not a panacea for anything. Kids are nasty in Christian schools. Kids do all kind of things that aren't good for themselves and others in Christian schools. Somehow we, as parents, we—there's part of us that would like to put them under glass and protect them. I understand that. I'm a parent. There are some things out there in the world that I've seen that are going on with middle school kids today that weren't done a generation ago in early college.

Jean: Right.

Kevin: I mean you talk about kids leaping ahead sexually, --

Jean: Yes.

Kevin: --what they're doing in—listen to me—in sixth grade, in seventh grade, in eighth grade. And I'm going to speak very candidly; if you guys want to cut this out, feel free. But if you don't know what rainbow games are, you need to know. A rainbow game consists of a few girls and a boy, okay? A boy at a table; girls under the table. It's to see how many different colors that young man can get on his male appendage.

Jean: Mm.

Kevin: These are sixth-graders and seventh-graders. And kids don't call it sex. And so what's happening today, kids are just roaring toward adulthood. A guy named David Elkind wrote a wonderful book years ago called The Hurried Child. It was a great little book. But its sequel, which didn't do as well, had a better title. It was called All Grown Up and No Place to Go. And that's where we find our kids today. And so if you're … you better talk turkey to your kids about sex, parents.

Now how many of you woke up this morning and said, "You know what I'd like to do today? I would like to talk to Nathan about sex. I would like to talk to Samantha about sex." Nobody in the country woke up with that thought. No one. You're not alone, parent. I wrote a book called A Chicken's Guide to Talking Turkey to your Kids about Sex. It's a great title. It is the lowest-selling Leman book on record. And not because it's not a good book; it's a great little book; but because Christian parents don't want to talk about such things. God created sex; it's got to be governed—for sex to be great, it's got to be governed by Him.

And so where do you talk to your kids? On the interstate. On the interstate.

Jim: When they can't jump out of the car.

Jean: Right. Yes.

Kevin: And you look out that window and you're kid's thinking, I can't believe this conversation. You talk turkey. Who talks? Both parents. But namely, in your situation, Mr. Daly, you'll love this: Jean gets the privilege of doing most of it with those boys, because who knows better than a woman about how she wants to be treated?

So again, an ominous warning to Jean is hey Jean, you represent all of womanhood to these two boys, and that's why you never take any guff from them, ever. And that's why Jim steps in, okay, and treats you the way you need to be treated, because they're looking at Jim and say, "This is how you treat a woman."

Jean: Right.

Kevin: So when I say the kids are taking copious notes on how you behave, how you interact and where you are spiritually and how you honor God in your home, I'm telling you, they're taking notes. They are good stenographers.

Jim: Those are good things to know, Kevin. Let me end here, because it's important, I think. You talk about the 10 commandments to parents. Just touch on a couple of those, and John, let's post those on the website if Kevin's agreeable to that. Just for parents to get a handle on that. But you call it the 10 commandments for parents. What are a couple of those?

Kevin: Well, a couple of them for sure is "Say 'Forgive me' when you're wrong." You never look bigger in your kid's eyes. "Tell me when I was wrong, but don't criticize me." You can criticize what they do. That's a fine line, but it's received completely differently. "Don't tell me what to do." Parents are always telling their kids to do [sic]. "Allow kids to sort things out." "Never forget how important you are to me." Even when I seemingly want to blow you off, I really don't.

Jim: You know, to that—

Kevin: I need you in my life.

Jim: To that point, I think it was an MTV survey, it was a high number, like over 90 percent of those MTV viewers said their relationship with their parents was the most important relationship to them. Isn't that interesting?

Kevin: I think I saw that same thing. But here's what it gets down to is can you listen to your kids without overcorrecting? Because I'm telling you, what they're fed in schools, in the media today and everything else, it has a far left turn, and the Millennials don't have a lot of rules. As parents, we love rules. As a reminder for every Christian parent, the Pharisees had more than their fair share of rules. But Jesus came to this world to give us what? Life and a relationship.

So it's all about relationships—whether you're trying to sell computer chips for a living or software or rearing a kid. It all gets down to that relationship. And that relationship depends upon you, parents, because you set the tone and tenor of your family. Yes, we love our kids, but no, we're not going to let them run over us at any time. It's that wonderful balance between—when you started off in that other program about this balance beam. How do you balance acceptance and belonging, competence? It's an art form. It takes some looking at ourselves and say, "What do I normally say when I see this? What's the new me, Jim Daly, going to do when I see this with my son?"

Jim: Yes. Dr. Kevin Leman, terrific advice these last couple of days. His book, Planet Middle School: Helping Your Child through the Peer Pressure, Awkward Moments & Emotional Drama. It's been great to have you with us.

Kevin: Hey, thank you.

Jim: And Jean, it's been great to have you here, too.

Jean: Well, thank you.


John: Yeah, I think Jean represented a lot of moms as Dr. Leman was unpacking this difficult time in life for so many, both the children and the parents. And you'll want to get a copy of Dr. Leman's book: Planet Middle School because it really will help you with communication issues and strategies and it will help you understand better some of the difficulties with peer pressure at school that your child's going through. Look for that book as well as The Middle Schooler's Ten Commandments to Parents, which we mentioned we'll have at . And just know that we need your prayer and financial support, please. We rely on your generosity to keep going to keep making programs like this available to you and we invite your partnership; your financial partnership specifically. So please, contribute to the work of Focus on the Family today. And, when you do so, it will be our privilege to send a copy of Dr. Leman's book to you for your own use, or perhaps to pass on to someone who's right there in the middle of the struggle. Donate when you call 800 the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459. Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller inviting you back again next time. You're going to hear a dramatic story about a couple on the verge of separation and divorce and how God intervened. That's tomorrow as we once again help your family thrive.

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Kevin Leman

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Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman and his wife, Sande, reside in Tucson, Ariz., and have five children. Learn more about Dr. Leman by visiting his website:


Jean Daly

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Jean Daly became a Christian in 2nd grade and rededicated her life to Christ at 17. She attended the University of California at Davis and earned her degree in Biology from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Jean has been married to her husband, Jim, since 1986; they have two boys.