Focus on the Family Broadcast

Parenting Tips for the Middle School Years (Part 1 of 2)

Parenting Tips for the Middle School Years (Part 1 of 2)

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 1 of 2)

Original Air Date: October 6, 2015


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Kevin Leman: So I’m not saying accept everything the enemy brings to us; I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying you’ve got to be a parent, but I call it relationship discipline, because it’s all based on the relationship. So as a parent, you can have all the rules in the world, but it goes for naught if you don’t have what? A relationship with your son or your daughter.

End of Teaser

John: That’s Dr. Kevin Leman, talking about the middle school years and on today’s “Focus on the Family,” we’re continuing with some of our Best of 2015 programs. Now these are radio shows that really generated a high response from you, our listeners. You called; you wrote. You Facebooked us and said, “Wow, that’s great stuff.” I’m John Fuller, with Focus president and author, Jim Daly and we’re so glad to have you with us today.

Jim Daly: John, the middle-school years are such a critical time in our children’s development, and it can be a difficult time for parents. And I think all of us know, right–

John: I’m there.

Jim: –what that’s like. Today we do want to help you better understand the changes your middle schooler is going through—if we could possibly do that—and to learn how to respond instead of react and still keep a sense of humor in the household. That’ll be a challenge. This is all part of what Focus on the Family is here to do for you is to bring those tools and those experts so that you can hear some great ideas on how to overcome some of those middle-school obstacles.

John: And Dr. Leman is, as I said, our guest. He’s been here before, dozens and dozens of times and he’s touched so many lives throughout his career. He’s, of the books that he’s written, the one that we’re going to talk about today is called Planet Middle School–like it’s another world out there—Helping Your Child through the Peer Pressure, Awkward Moments & Emotional Drama.


Jim: Kevin, welcome back to Focus.

Kevin: Oh, you know I feel so at home here. It’s just, it’s really, you know, I guess it’s typical you’re supposed to say it’s a joy to be here, but truly it’s a joy to be here. I love being with you guys. I love what Focus does. And you’ve added someone to this semi-round table who adds beauty and grace to it.

Jim: I sure did. That’s my wife, Jean. Oh, look at this. Jean, welcome to the program.

Kevin: She’s beaming like a kitten over there.

Jean Daly: I am. Well, thank you.

Jim: That’s because we’re talking middle-school years and we have one still in that spot.

Jean: Absolutely, so it’s a pleasure being here, and I am eager to get some advice from Dr. Leman.

Jim: You talk about, in the book, three important pillars in a child’s life, the ABCs. What are those about?

Kevin: You know, it’s fundamental, and I’ve talked about those for years and I can’t get away from them, because it seems like the essence of what every parent has to be able to pull off. That kid has to feel accepted by you, okay? He gets beat up in the world every day he or she goes to school, so is the home a place of respite, of acceptance, of true love? Or is it a place where they get ragged on from the time they walk in the door?

Jim: Okay, but I’ve got to stop you there, because there’s always this balance between how they’re doing and if they’re doing the things you need them to do and giving that affirmation that makes them feel good. I don’t know why, junior high just seems to be that point where, like you said, their brains seem to dissolve and they learn new vocabulary like “Pfft,” “Huh,” “Duh.” Where do those words come from?

Kevin: You know, let’s take you out of the head guy at Focus on the Family for just a second, okay, and make you Jim Daly, the dad. And you are so stereotypical of dads, even in your question. “Well Kevin, what happens when these kids aren’t doing the right thing?” See that’s where we as parents come from. There’s a right thing; there’s a right way. I always go back to Proverbs 22:6, says, “Train up a child,” train up, not down, “up a child in the way he should go.”

Now here’s our problem as parents and I’m no different than you. I knew exactly how my kids ought to be. But that “in the way he should go” really speaks to the individual bent of each of your children. You have two boys; one turns left, one turns right. One has skills in this area; one has skills in that area. So we come from an authoritarian-based parenting experience.

Almost everybody in our country grew up in an authoritarian home where parents literally told you what to do, how to do it, when to do it. “Hey, I’m telling you for the last time, okay? And get that look off your face right now or I’m going to change it for you. (Laughter) Don’t make me come over there!” Now I’m thinking we can stay home. (Laughter)

John: Jean has friends who have said things like that, right?

Jean: I have heard (Laughter) people saying things like that.

Kevin: Have we not all said to ourselves, “I will never say that to my son?”

Jean: Yes, yes, yes.

Kevin: “I will never say that to my daughter”? And not only do you say the same words your parents used, but the same tone and inflection.

Jean: Absolutely.

Kevin: So there’s some humor here. So back to acceptance, a lot of times that first-born, the lab rat of the family I like to call them, is sort of pushing the parent to see, “Do you really love me?” I always think women ask husbands every day, “Do you really love me? Do you really love me?” And they don’t ask the question, but they’re observing how that husband treats them. Well, kids do the same thing. “Do you really love me?” And kids are always, from day one they’re always going to push the limits a little bit.

So the answer I think you’re looking for is you treat kids differently; you don’t treat your second-born like you treat your first-born or your third-born; they have different responsibilities. They’re different. God made them all different. But the acceptance part is really speaking of an unqualified love. Now again, do they always do things right? No, but that’s why God gave us parents, to help guide them and sometimes to pull a rug out from underneath them and give them what I call vitamin N. But a lot of vitamin E, which is encouragement. “Now you’re getting it. Wow! It looks like all that work you did really paid off, honey. Wow, and A. I’ll bet that makes you feel good inside.”

Jim: Well, let me ask you this question again, because again it’s that balancing factor. So often we as human beings tend to work with a light switch. It’s all this way or it’s all that way, not like a dimmer switch where it’s moving between.

Kevin: Right.

Jim: And in this area, I think we can get caught in that, that we’re all affirmation or that we’re all responsibility and you’re not meeting the standard. I’m asking you how do you find that right balance? Do you just affirm all the time? Or there are times to put your foot down and say, “Okay, you’re not hitting the mark.”

Kevin: I want to say this as nicely as I possibly can. Parents today are clueless. They want to be their child’s best friend. The thought of their kid falling behind is beyond them.

Jim: Right, no failure.

Kevin: They all want happy, happy, happy children. I mean, I can quote myself on this one. An unhappy child is a healthy child. And there’s times your son has to be unhappy; there’s times your daughter has to be unhappy. Why? Because she didn’t speak correctly to you, dad, or you, mom. So it is that balance beam of life. And it’s almost an art form. And as you get older, and again we practice on the first-born. Chances are you’re going to get the second-born or the third-born or the fourth-born, you’re going to do that one a little better, because we tend to be black-and-white thinkers. This is right; this is wrong and we build in a rigidity and a reaction, rather than a response in a loving [way] and meeting kids where they’re at.

So acceptance is the first part, but the B part, the belonging. When you talk about Planet Middle School, and if you’re driving, hold onto the wheel, because this is a scary thought. Your son, your daughter who goes to AWANA, youth group, reads the Lord’s Word every day—now listen to me—will do anything to fit in and that’s scary.

Jean: That is frightening.

Kevin: So you’ve got a perfect storm. You’ve got a kid who’s growing up, okay? You’ve got hormones changing, body changing at warp speed, the attraction to the opposite sex, all these things going on, and a parent who’s now getting nervous that my little kid, my 10-year-old’s wearing a training bra. That’s enough to put a man in fourth gear, okay? And you put all those things together and it’s combustible, and it can happen real quick.

Jim: All right, so we got the A and the B; what’s the C?

Kevin: The C is competence. I think it’s really important that your kid feels like they’re a somebody. And for some kids it’s on the soccer field. For other kids, they’re really good in math. For some kids, they can make a flute really sound like a flute. As a parent, I’ll never forget, I as at [a] fourth-grade orchestra concert, and I turned to my wife and I said, “Honey, when is this thing going to start?”

She said, “Will you hush up? It’s almost over with!”

John: You thought they were practicing.

Kevin: I thought they were practicing. It was terrible. But you know, with those warts and blemishes, think of the people in your life as a kid growing up who really believed in you anyway. And so, part of that whole ABCs is having someone believe in you and that has your back and realize that life isn’t perfect. Which means as a parent, I’m quick to say what? “Honey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Would you forgive me?” So we model that. We never get away from modeling, because the kids are looking up and their taking emotional notes and spiritual notes on how we run our lives.

Jim: You mention the child who excels in some area and you can affirm that and they can derive some benefit. What about the parent whose child is not seemingly accelerating in anything and they’re struggling to find out what they can accelerate in?

John: Just kind of drifting?

Jim: Yeah, and they’re worried about it. I mean junior high, that tends to begin to surface that they’re not interested in school, they’re not doing well in band, and they’re not playing sports. What advice do you have for that parent?

Kevin: Well, I think honest, straightforward communication to that kid is important. And so what I’ve always told kids when I had the opportunity, “Listen, this is what you have to understand. An 8 x 11 piece of paper or a computer screen is going to have your name, your Social Security number and some facts about you, and someone down the line is going to make all kinds of decisions that are gonna really influence your future. When I talk about your future, I’m talking about the kind of money you’re going to make, the kind of house you’re going to live in, the kind of car you’re going to drive, and so what old mom and dad have been talking about that school is important and all that, let me assure you; it’s more than important.”

And so again there’s a dose of reality there. Do you let kids fail? Again, if you’re driving, hang on: yes, you do let kids fail. You don’t bail them out. You don’t do things that most parents do for their kids. They do the science project; they do the homework; it’s crazy. Let them fail. Talk to anybody who’s successful. Talk to a guy named Jim Daly. Ask him if there was failure in his life.

Kevin: I’m here to tell ya–

Jim: All the time.

Kevin: –there was a lot of it.

Jean: Dr. Leman, that really resonates with me of trying to find something that your child excels at, and there certainly is, you know, a spectrum of what excelling means, but I’ve had to do this at times with our kids, and maybe particularly one of them, of trying to find something positive to say every day during some rather rough times. And you have to be really intentional about it.

Kevin: You do.

Jean: But I think as parents we can find something positive to say–

Jim: Right.

Jean: –and to really be looking for those things.

Kevin: Yeah, and “I love the way you hang in there. I love your resolve, you know. I wouldn’t want to take you on one-on-one, you know, because you have some bull dog-like qualities. But I’ve got to tell you the truth; my prayer for you is that some time in your life those bull dog qualities that you have—some people would call them a little on the stubborn side— you know, I’d like to think those are gonna pay off for you someday. You’re not, you know, you’re not your brother, and I am so glad you’re not like him. Can I talk to you just confidentially for a second? You know, is your brother a little over-the-top, or is it me?” (Laughter) You know, when you–

Jean: That is great advice.

Kevin: –when you say that to a kid–

Jim: They’ll light up.

Kevin: –you have established what I call “equality,” and the kid says to himself “Oh, mom understands what I’m up against.”

Jean: Yes.

Kevin: And see that’s where you win favor with that child. As you were talking, Jean, I thought of years ago—and I’m going way back—I taught in a school for emotionally disturbed kids. Our teachers wore football helmets with masks in the classroom–

Jean: Oh my goodness.

Kevin: –because these kids would throw books or anything. I mean they were behaviorally disturbed kids. I had the joy of teaching there, and I taught the kids P.E., because by state [law], these kids had to have physical education. So I took them down to a local Y, and we would play what we used to call Battle Ball. Imagine a gym [ball]; they’re sort of soft; they’re not real hard, but they’re big, rubber balls.

Jim: We call them “bouncy balls.”

Kevin: Yeah and the idea was to hit the guy and if you hit the guy, he was out. You could come down to the foul line, for example, on a basketball court. And if you caught the ball, then the guy who threw the ball was out. And these kids were not kind to one another, okay? They had no idea what kindness even meant. And I had one kid—and I’ll never forget him; his name was Robbie—and I’m telling you, if he was a half inch taller he would have been perfectly round. He was so big, and it was just a struggle for him to get down on the floor. And one day it hit me; it hit me, because I felt so sorry for this kid. He used to come back just black and blue from getting bombed.

And I said one day, I said, “All right, everybody on the floor. We’re gonna have a rolling contest.” And we had a rolling contest where the kids would roll all the way down, touch the other end and come back. It took them a couple of times to get it down, but it was the funniest thing, because about the third time trying, he finally learned how to keep his hands out straight, and he rolled like a barrel down a mountain. And it was the funniest thing.

Jim: This was his element.

Kevin: And he won.

Jean: And he won.

Kevin: And he won. And I’ll never forget, he’s struggling to get up on one knee. He put his arms up over his head and he said, “I’m a winner! I’m a winner!” And every time we went to P.E. he would always say, “Dr. Leman, are we going to roll today?”

“Yes, Robbie, we’re going to roll today.”

And a kid will withstand anything to get that one little carrot thrown his way.

John: Well, that is a beautiful illustration. I mean that really touches me, and I think it reflects what I went through in middle school, and certainly it’s harder today in those years. And if you’ve got kids in your home that are in that age range, Planet Middle School is the book that Dr. Kevin Leman has written, and we’re talking with him today on “Focus on the Family.” Get that and a CD or a download of this conversation with Dr. Leman and Jean Daly. And you’ll find those at

Jim: Kevin, you talk about the parental SOS. I found that a little hard to swallow, but tell us what that is.

Kevin: Well, No. 1 is, stay calm. You know these kids have the ability to draw you into conflict. They have a great ability. It’s like they have antennae that go out and say, “Okay, this’ll get mom going real good.”

Jim: Rev the engines.

Jean: Yes!

Kevin: Yeah. It’s like a dog-and-pony show, and they do it in unison. It’s not just usually one kid. That’s why I say we have seen the enemy and they are small. And we have invited them into our home like the Trojan horse. The hard part for most parents is to keep your mouth shut, because we love to vent; we love to, again, tell people what to do. And the big thing is [to] not ask questions. And when you tell parents not to ask questions, I would tell you in all the parenting books that have sold in the millions if you put them all together, I mean millions and millions, the best single piece of advice in all of those books is learn not to ask your kids questions. It sets the paradigm that they will give you grunt answers; they’ll tell you what you want to hear; and they essentially blow you off in a very systematic way.

Jean: Well, and I put this to [the] test last year in middle school, and I must say the first time I read that, Dr. Leman.

Kevin: You thought I was loony. Go ahead. Okay.

Jim: Counterintuitive.

Jean: Right, right, well, it seemed absolutely impossible, and I didn’t want to do that. I want to ask questions. I want to know everything, but I was picking up my middle schooler from school. “How was school today?” “Good.” Every single day. “How was school today?” “Good.”

Then I decided to try not asking the questions, and I followed your advice to the T. He got into the van and I didn’t say anything. And we drove and drove, and after about five minutes he started talking to me and telling me about his day. It’s beautiful. It really works. It’s very counterintuitive. You know, I’m not gonna say I don’t ask any questions ever.

Kevin: Well, when you ask a mom not to ask a question, you’re asking a fire not to burn.

Jean: Absolutely, absolutely.

Kevin: You, statistically, will use 3 ½ times number of words that handsome Jim will use in a given day of the week. (Laughter)

Jean: Yes, yes, yes.

Kevin: So the other thing that’s sort of unusual about that, if you don’t say anything when you pick your kid up, sometimes the kid will ask you a question, and they’ll say, “Is everything okay?” “Fine. Life’s beautiful.” And don’t say another word.

Jean: Yes.

Kevin: “Well, you just sort of seem kind of different.” “Really? Really?” And so for people who are going to say, “Hey Leman, I can’t do that.” Here is the magic word. “Tell me more about that. That seems interesting.”

Now “Tell me more about that” is a command, okay. It’s a command, but it doesn’t put the defenses up, where if you ask a question–and I’m speaking to every woman, okay, I’m talking about your man in your life, your husband, okay, your boyfriend, whomever—this is an unsolicited commercial for men everywhere. Ladies, we hate your questions, okay? And we hate the “why” word. So if you want a better marriage, a better relationship with that man in your life, don’t ask him questions and it’s true.

Jim: Well, what can they do to communicate?

Jean: I think this is news for me with a husband.

Panel: (All Talking At Once)

Jim: Hey Kevin, I’ll give you that ten bucks a little later.

Kevin: Yeah, there’s a parallel. I mean how many men will admit that when your wife asks you a question, okay—and we have three husbands around the table today—how many of us will admit that your wife asked you a question and you don’t answer the question? Hands up.

John: Well, occasionally.

Jim: I’m pretty good about it.

Kevin: But why–

Jim: It depends on the moment.

Kevin: –but why do we do that?

Jean: How did I not know this? (Laughing)

Kevin: We do that because we’re running it through our little compartmentalized brain. We’re wondering, “Is this a setup? Am I gonna get in trouble?”

Jim: That’s all very true.

John: What’s the right answer–

Kevin: What’s the right answer?

John: –she’s looking for?

Jim: Okay, now we’re getting to it.

Kevin: So–

John: And you’re saying kids do the same thing.

Kevin: –it’s relational. I have a new school in Tucson. We just opened a brand-new school called Leman Academy of Excellence, and one of the things I’ve tried to tell the teachers about discipline in the classroom is, when something is going on, you just walk up to that kid and say, “Michael, I am very unhappy about what’s going down here.” And you give them the look, okay? And you turn around, and the kid doesn’t like it when teacher is unhappy. Kids don’t like it when Mom is unhappy. So I’m not saying accept everything the enemy brings to us; I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying you’ve got to be a parent, but I call it “relationship discipline,” because it’s all based on the relationship. So as a parent, you can have all the rules in the world, but it goes for naught if you don’t have what? A relationship with your son or your daughter.

Jim: That’s so true. It’s so true. Let’s talk about that environment, not so much from the parent/child relationship but the environment purely of the child, when they are going into middle school from sixth grade and into probably a new school with many other unknown people there; not the friends that they’re bringing along from elementary school, but new people. Talk about that environment and how with all the body changes that are occurring and the awareness of the opposite sex, what does that feel like for that junior high person, for those parents who, you know, can’t remember?

Kevin: It’s like going into Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and you’re the opposition, because it’s dangerous. You hope, as a kid, that it’s not your day–

Jim: To get picked on?

Kevin: –oh yeah, to get picked on, to be bullied, to be ridiculed. When I was in school, we used to steal kids’ clothes, the gym class. We’d steal their clothes so they’d come out of the shower—kids used to shower at school; this is new information for you new parents. Kids actually used to take showers after gym class.

Jean: That’s a good thing they’ve stopped that.

Kevin: Oh my goodness. But you’d come out, and I mean how many times? Countless times I came out and it was my day. And there’s nothing worse than being naked as a jaybird and the bell rings and you’re supposed to be at your next class and you have no idea where your clothes are. I mean it’s nasty things. It’s prank things. It’s mean things. And today with the new Goliath, the cell phone, the pictures that people put up, the nasty things they say, the rumors they start. You can destroy—we see account after account where kids have committed suicide, taken their own lives, because of the ridicule.

So that’s why I say does your kid identify in the home? 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? I mean–

Jean: Absolutely.

Kevin: –the world, so to speak, and the peer group, will devour your child that you love that are growing up way too fast. That’s not late-breaking information, for sure.

Jean: Do we need to be talking to our kids about the drugs, all of that?

Kevin: Yes. And the newspaper and again, for you young people, newspapers are, well, they’re made out of paper and they’re printed daily.

John: They have news.

Kevin: Again, young parents, young parents today don’t read newspapers; they go to Google News and get news–

Jean: Right, yes.

Kevin: –and they live life in–

Jim: Digitally.

Kevin: –technology, digital world. But yeah, I think you, when you see things in the paper, when you see things in the news, when you see things on TV, I think you talk about them. And I say, “Honey.” Now again, if you want your kid to tie into you, here’s the words you need to master. “Honey, I’d love to know your opinion on that.” And then sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen and see what the kid says.

Now you might be surprised by some of their reactions to the social/political things that are going on. You might be astonished that your kid believes differently than you do at an early age. But you better listen, and you better hear them out.

Jim: Dr. Kevin Leman, author of the book, Planet Middle School. I’ve got a lot more bullying questions I want to ask you about, and I’m sure Jean has some questions, John, all of us, because we’re living right here along with many of you. So Kevin, if possible, let’s continue and come back next time and talk more about this topic. Can you stick with us?

Kevin: I can, and this is a topic we could talk about for a long, long time.

Jim: All right.


John: And Dr. Leman’s book once again, is called Planet Middle School. We’ve got it here at Focus on the Family and we’d love to send it to you. It’s a great guide, as you’ve heard for children ages 11 through 13 and all the parenting challenges you’re gonna deal with and talks about the school environment and the peer pressure they face and ways to communicate better. Ask for your copy of Planet Middle School when you call 800-A-FAMILY.

And we also have that resource online, as well as a CD or a download of our program today and you can listen to the conversation again and again through our mobile app. I’ll encourage you to get that for your phone or tablet, so you can listen on the go.

And then let me say thank you for your prayer and financial support. It keeps us going. It allows Focus on the Family to be here, day in, day out, offering great insights that you’ve heard from Dr. Leman today and providing resources, as well. Because of you, we can reach out to families in need and offer encouragement and we received this letter recently.

They said, “Thanks for your reply to my previous e-mail. As I read your message tears were streaming down my face. You gave me hope for me and my boys. I was filled with joy to know that complete strangers were will to help us. So, thank you and thanks again for your prayers and concern. You have no idea how much your e-mail meant to me. God bless you and your entire staff.”

Well, we do receive letters like that every day from people who have been touched by the ministry of Focus on the Family and you’re a partner with us when you pray and contribute financially. I hope you will join that team as we continue to strengthen marriages and equip parents to have healthy, thriving children. You can donate when you call 800-A-FAMILY or on line at And when you contribute a gift of any amount today we’ll send Dr. Leman’s book, Planet Middle School to you. It’s a great resource, we’d love for you to have it, so please, donate today.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family. And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We’ll continue this conversation with Dr. Kevin Leman and Jean Daly and once again, help your family thrive.

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Planet Middle School

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