"Raising Future-Ready Middle-Schoolers"
with Chris Balme
Season 8, Episode 2

Chris Balme is father to three children, an education leader, school, founder, and a writer, who is passionate about helping young people discover more of their human potential. Chris has spent more than 20 years as an education leader and innovator, specifically in service to middle school youth.

He first taught as a middle school science teacher then held several leadership roles in middle schools across the United States. He founded a non-profit to reinvigorate middle schooler’s love of learning and for this work, he received the Ashoka fellowship. Chris, then co-founded and was head of school at the Millennium School, a progressive, independent middle school where he helped pioneer new learning methods rooted in developmental science. He is also the founder and director of Argonaut, an online advisory program for middle schoolers. He currently serves as Founding Principal at Hakuba International School in Japan. Chris regularly speaks, trains and fights for parents and teachers around the world. He has a BA. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BS. in Management from the Wharton School of Business.

Chris is also the author of a book about his remarkable work. It’s called “Finding the Magic in Middle School: Tapping into the Power and Potential of the Middle School Years“. This book is the topic of our conversation today.

In this Episode you will learn about:

  • The 3 questions that all middle-schoolers ask themselves
  • The biological roots of the behavior we see in middle-schoolers
  • How to help middle schoolers discover who they are, enjoy friendships and manage their emotions
  • The kinds of learning experiences (in and out of school) that will keep middle-schoolers engaged and motivated and prepare them to thrive in the future
  • How to stay close to your children during middle school
  • How to make sure your school is serving your middle-schooler well
  • The future of middle school education/curricular for human flourishing
  • How to embrace the middle school years, rather than fear them

Petal Modeste: Chris Balme is father to 3 children, an education leader, school, founder, and writer who is passionate about helping young people discover more of their human potential. Chris has spent more than 20 years as an education leader and innovator, specifically in service to middle school youth. He first taught as a middle school science teacher then held several leadership roles in middle schools across the United States he founded a non-profit to reinvigorate Middle Schooler’s love of learning and for this work he received the Ashoka fellowship. Chris, then co-founded and was head of school at the Millennium School, a progressive, independent middle school where he helped pioneer New Learning methods rooted in developmental science. He is also the founder and director of Argonaut, an online advisory program for middle schoolers. He currently serves as founding principal at Hakuba International School in Japan. Chris regularly speaks trains and rights for parents and teachers around the world. He has a BA. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and s BS. in Management from the Wharton School of Business. Chris is also the author of a book about his remarkable work. It’s called Finding the Magic in Middle School: Tapping into the Power and Potential of the Middle school Years. This book is the topic of our conversation to day. Welcome Chris to parenting for the future. We are so honored to have you here!

Chris Balme (he/him): So happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Petal Modeste: Well, all of our listeners know that I always like to start with getting some background information about all of the guests. So now it’s your turn to tell me a little bit about your early life. Where did you grow up? What was your family like, and what values informed your upbringing?

Chris Balme (he/him): Hmm, thank you for that question. I love starting that way as well. I grew up mostly in the suburbs of Boston, and probably the most notable thing about my family of origin was that they’re all musicians and artists. So from the start, I think I had this openness to different pathways through life and my parents were both professional musicians, and they didn’t force my sister and I to become musicians, but they also demonstrated that you don’t need to find the 9 to 5 job. There are many paths towards success. I feel very grateful for that I think it gave me an entrepreneurial spirit, as they. You know musicians have to be entrepreneurs as well. Went through school. And you know much of the reason I do this work is my own misadventures, I think during those adolescent years for me, middle and high school, was a time of real disconnection. I found school to be incredibly boring. And I didn’t have social connections. I always felt like I must have missed the day when they taught people how to make friends and how to handle fear relationships is I just don’t get this. And so I kind of stumbled and fumbled my way through, thinking. Finally, when I left high school, like, thank goodness, I’m done with that. I’ll never set foot in a K-12 building again. Of course one should never say never is that the universe has the last laugh.

Petal: Always, always. So, do you remember how you navigated that difficult period? Because I remember reading that in the book I think the phrase you used was that you felt disconnected and disoriented during middle and high school. Was there no one to sort of help you navigate that period? You just sort of manage it on your own.

Chris Balme (he/him): The greatest gift to me in that time was being part of an orchestra, and that was the class that I looked forward to, and thank goodness, in high school. It was the first period of the day, so it gave me a reason to show up. Even though I was never a great musician. It was so creative and open. We had this kind of bombastic orchestra director, who, just, you know, wore his heart on his sleeve, was kind of the opposite of a formal teacher. And I related with him, you know I would be laughing hard and making music, you know, before 8 am. In the morning, and that that was a lifeline for me.

Petal Modeste: That’s wonderful and then you went to college You started se studied psychology. You studied management, and in your own words, which you just repeated, you would never set foot in a classroom. But then you ended up being a teacher. How did that happen?

Chris: Yeah. Well, to make a long story short, I knew I loved entrepreneurship as a teenager. I had started little businesses. And so I ended up in business school, and I thought, you know, I’ll be an entrepreneur. I’ll make lots of money. That’s the goal. And as I got closer and closer to it and interned and was around that environment, I realized, wait, actually, the entrepreneurship is what excites me. The money making is not enough. And you know that is a privilege to even think that way. I didn’t come from a wealthy background, but I somehow understood that I wasn’t going to bounce out of bed on Monday morning, if the main goal was just make money. I wanted something that felt more purposeful. And you know, at the same time I started to look back on my own education and start to wonder, especially with middle school like, did it have to be that bad? We tell this story so consistently. And now I hear from my own kids, you know. Oh, middle school is the worst time of your whole life. Every kid hears that story, and parents repeated to each other, and it’s like this tornado of fear. And I just one day started to question it like, really is that just inherent? Or is there something about the way we’ve been schooling kids that makes it adversarial. and that kind of got my entrepreneurial energy flowing and the next thing I knew I was cooking up ideas, dreaming of starting a school with that entrepreneurial side which is terrible for making money, but absolutely worth it for a purposeful work.

Petal Modeste: Yes, and for those kids who benefit from the work. So let’s talk now about middle school and middle schoolers, because just at the very beginning of the book, you tell us that middle school often begins with that terrifying realization that you’re in a complicated social world where others are watching you closely, and that realization as a child can shake you to the core. And indeed, as you said, you know, all of us seem to have some kind of negative associations with that phase of life. It’s social drama. They don’t want to do their academics. They want to start going out. And I mean, it goes on and on. What does the research actually tell us about middle school? Are some of those assumptions and fears actually well founded? Or are we all a little bit nuts.

Chris Balme (he/him): Probably a bit of both, you know. The first thing I would take from the neuroscience in particular research is that there are 2 times in life of peak brain growth that is, early childhood and early adolescence. So roughly the 0 to 5 years, and roughly 11 to 16.

Petal: Right.

Chris: Those high brain-growth times are also the hardest time to be somebody’s parents because that their developmental phases are coming quickly one after the other. Sometimes it seems like every month. They’re onto a new kind of set of rules, set of needs. And but if you think about it, you know the 0 to 5 age, we kind of enshrine like, we know, this is incredibly precious time. We research it. We’ve got all these developmental books. Otherwise we would go bonkers. Frankly. You know we would make no sense of what a 2-year-old is up to. But we know it’s like, Oh, they’re in this stage now. Okay, it’s going to be okay. But middle school is the other time when we need those developmental maps, when you know they’re changing so rapidly. And now we don’t have that much developmental kind of resource you know, to refer to, or often times our parent connections are not as strong at that point as they were when we first became parents. That’s why I wrote the book. And I think the first kind of key thing to realize is that middle school is like having a newborn. Maria Montessori, and a hundred years ago called it equivalent to being a social newborn. So all of the hardware in our brains that you and I have as adults to perceive the social worlds. It all gets turned on really quickly at the beginning of puberty and that’s overwhelming for any. So they’re starting to perceive everything that we see. You know, social rankings, inclusion and exclusion of groups, bias, racism, sexism, all of that is starting to become clear to them, and for a lot of them. They kind of freeze for a bit. It’s like, Oh, my gosh, this is a lot! And how do I fit in? Who am I. Who is it safe to be so? I think that’s ground 0 for understanding middle school, that if we see them as kind of, they’re almost heroes on this kind of epic journey, of making sense of this adult world that they can now see, and if we help them make sense of it, and set up the learning systems around them so that it taps into their social drive and their quest for identity. Then we see them, I think, as they really are, which are very motivated, sincere, amazing, transforming people. Too often, though middle school seems to tell them to stop doing all the things they’re interested in, you know. Don’t be social. Be quiet. Work on your own. Then a lot of middle schoolers just resist. And that’s when you see the typical eye rolling behavior that we think that’s what middle school is. it’s not who they are. It’s what the system kind of makes of them.

Petal: So let’s delve a little bit into what’s happening with our children. In this period, you said. Of course you but you believe they’re heroes. And these years are magical, because this is really when they start to transform into adults. And you used a metaphor of a river. And you say that as they enter this river there are 3 currents or 3 questions that come up for them and the 3
questions are, who am I? How do I connect? And what can I contribute? So let’s start with, who am I? You tell us that a few things we could do as parents of middle schoolers to help them navigate. That question is to be ourselves and be weird.

Chris: Thank you so much for starting with that. I think that’s one of the most important pieces of advice in this book, and you know, if this is your oldest child, say we’re talking about, then you’ve probably gotten accustomed to a certain way of parenting a younger child, where you might be more like a boss, because you are far, far more capable. You see the world much more
clearly than a young child does. But now enter a middle schooler, and you know there’s fascinating research on this. They can. They can read faces in similar ways to how an adult does they begin to have high levels of perception socially, again, much like we do, but low levels of interpretation, because they don’t know yet how to make sense of all of this incoming information. For example, if they walk by a kid who, you know, has a weird look on their face. How do they know if that kid is, you know, having a stomach ache, or if they hate them, and their social life is about to self-destruct. They just haven’t been through enough cycles of that. And you know you and I have as adults. So they have all the hardware we have socially, but not enough experience with it. So what that means is, they have a lot of social anxiety, and it’s just very common in middle school to not be sure if it’s safe to be yourself. and your sense of who you are is changing every day, anyways. So all that, coming back to the invitation to be weird. You know it’s classic in middle schools that students love the art teacher
the most, because that teacher often has the most permission to be authentically themselves to be weird and goofy and middle schoolers relax around that. Oh, thank God! Here is someone else who’s also weird and strange and honest about it, just like me. And so for parents, you know, if we’ve gotten used to being a little bit more like the boss. I
think the invitation here is to try to be more open about what’s happening in our inner world to let them know if we’ve just had a bad day to be open about, you know, when it’s appropriate conflicts in our lives, because they need to know that that’s normal. And there are ways to respond to that. You know fundamentally to align the words. We say with all the information that our body language is sharing all the time, and when those are in alignment.

Petal Modeste: It’s fascinating what you’re saying. About having the hardware but not having the experience to understand exactly what’s happening. It is such a wonderful lesson for us, because we, as adults sometimes also feel like we don’t fit in, or we’re having a conflict like you
say, I just love that it’s such an open invitation to have our children share in our lives. I could see how they would appreciate that. So another thing that we see a lot and I think actually worries a lot of parents what I would call self-centeredness rear its head, you know, at that age. And suddenly it’s all about them and I think a lot of parents struggle with that like what is happening right now? Why is my child so self-centered, not thinking about other people not
remembering they’re part of a family? You tell us that we shouldn’t stress about this at all. Why not?

Chris Balme (he/him): And there’s so many things that we parents get to worry about. I try in the book to differentiate some that I think are worth worrying about at this age. We could talk about later, like around belonging, and some things that are not worth our stress. And this is one of them. So I think a lot of parents pick up that self-centeredness in middle school, and we
fly to the conclusion of oh, my gosh! They’re going to be narcissistic adults. They don’t know how to care for others if you can find your own middle school experience, you’ll probably remember that it’s a wild ride to wake up every day feeling like your body is different and really surprising ways. Your emotions are more intense. Your social world is getting way more complex. So when all of those changes are happening, it’s the most natural thing in the world to wonder what is going on with me, and so to verbalize that to talk about it, to share what you’re thinking, to ask, what other things mean to you, or how you’re being interpreted by other people. So I actually think if we can drop our stress about it, we can use it as a conversational strategy. Sometimes it’s hard to get middle schoolers to open up around parents, but talking about themselves or making social comparisons, you know, obviously with some parameters. So they’re not being mean hearted about. we can actually join them in that self-centeredness and even admit that we, too, as adults, have identity questions. We’re not fully baked.

Petal Modeste: And then you, you ask us to also remember, that this is a period when our middle schooler is forming their own identity and therefore, starting to experiment with who they are, and that it is really important that we offer a warm, accepting and non-reactive response to their identity experiments. What happens when we do this and what happens when we don’t?

Chris Balme (he/him): Yes, great question. So I think you could think of middle schoolers as identity scientists. Their job is to run as many experiments as possible. To find what is authentically them can authentically them, is not just like a nice romantic notion authentically. Them means the things that they’re most resilient about, where they’re most likely to find their talents. So the thing you love is what you’ll do, even if you’re not being tested on it, even if it’s not the cool thing, because you love it, and that’s where you’ll find probably your best gifts to the world. So it’s really important that we let them do as many experiments, you know, provided they’re not harming anyone. Those experiments might be. You know they want you to call them
by a different name, or they’re super into theater this week and super not into it the next week. So you know, our task is to welcome them, to not shame. Experiments, you know, try to avoid teasing them for changing their minds rapidly. because that’s actually their job, you know you wouldn’t make fun of a scientist for trying another experiment. You’d say great. Tell me the
results. And also to not try to kind of staple on one experiment as a permanent part of their identity. They might try something one day that we’ve always wanted them to do like. Oh, maybe I’m into swimming, and we think that’s the best thing ever, and we want to ask them about it every day for the rest of their lives. But really, that was just today’s experiment, and they need to move on and keep trying things. So that’s why I recommend just kind of a warm, accepting non-reactive stance so that they can do their work and be good identity scientists.

Petal Modeste: What if they don’t get that response?

Chris Balme (he/him): couple things happen. One is, they may stop sharing the results of their experiments with us, so they’ll continue experimenting. But where we can’t see, and that’s usually not a great thing, or they’ll shut down parts of themselves, which means there are zones where they probably have talents, even genius, that they cannot discover yet, and they get delayed in finding those.

Chris Balme (he/him): So maybe you know, they think they’ll get made fun of if they, you know, turn into a book nerd, because their family really loves sports. But that book, nerd phase of their lives is when they’re going to discover something that is a real passion. So we don’t want to stop them again. As long as it’s not harming anyone, let them do as many experiments.

Petal Modeste: The second question that middle schoolers grapple with the second current in this river is, how do I connect? And you tell us that this question is particularly hard for parents, because it tends to move the middle schooler away from their family to their peers. And throughout the book you quote a lot of people who’ve been on the podcast which I think is wonderful, and one of them is Dr. Laurence Steinberg. And you talk about the peer effect, which is one of the things he observed in some of his research. What is this peer effect? Why is it so essential for our middle schoolers. Development if only so that we understand why we probably shouldn’t fear this move away from family as much as we probably do.

Chris: Yeah, this is one of the hardest things for parents that you see their peer worlds. It’s just it’s so obvious that that becomes their focus. And all of a sudden we panic like, Oh, we haven’t given them enough of our kind of influence or our values. And now they’re drifting off into the bigger world. So first thing I would say is that you have given them so much more than they
have the capacity to show you. So those 10, 12, 14 years where they were just downloading every bit of who you are and how you see the world. That message has been received and they are. They’re not always able to show it, because they haven’t always had the experiences you’ve had that led to that wisdom. But maybe when they’re 20 or 30 you’ll start to realize that those seeds were there. But with the peer effect, essentially, what it says is that at this age, because of brain changes, not a personal choice. I think that’s really a key point, because of brain changes. Everything that has to do with peers becomes extremely interesting to them. So the metaphor I use is, you know, if you are a middle schooler, and there are both adults and peers in the same room. It’s like the adults are a black and white movie. And we’re talking in
subtitles, and the peers are full color. Imax surround sounds, etc. In other words, like they’re not choosing to ignore us so much as their brains are directing them toward peers and making those peers incredibly enticing. So the peer effect talks about how, when, when you’re so excited by the presence of peers, it’s the desire to have even more fun with them that often
leads you to do things that are reckless or questionable. But I think for us as parents. The key message is that don’t take it personally. When peers become interesting, that’s natural, and it’s their brain changes. They’re not choosing to do it. And when you want to have those deeper conversations with them, do it when there are no peers even in earshot.

Petal Modeste: I have learned that the hard way. So how do we? How do we balance this, you know, supporting this quest? For you know, individuation while maintaining sort of a healthy influence over them. I mean, I take very seriously what you said, which is that all that we have shown them has had an influence on them, even if we are not sure what that is, or they can’t articulate it. So some wonderful things have happened at this point, hopefully, in terms of how they are perceiving the world and so on. But we’re still raising them. Things are still happening day to day. They’re still navigating this really difficult but, you know, exciting period. So how do we
continue to maintain healthy influence and allow them to grow in this way. So, for example, if we see our middle schooler struggling to make friends or to find their own community among their peers. And we’re worried that they’re forming negative habits to fit in. You know all their friends are vaping, they start vaping, or whatever it might be. How do we balance that out?

Chris Balme (he/him): 2 suggestions? One is, this is one of my favorite strategies with kids in general is called the third thing and so the idea is, instead of these, face to face, eye to eye, conversations which can be pretty taxing and kind of create a lot of anxiety or resistance in middle schoolers. They want to get out of them as soon as possible, find ways to position
yourself side by side, you know, literally, and have some shared point of focus. That’s the third thing. So a lot of parents know that if you drive carpool ever, that is sometimes the most revealing information you get about the inner life of your kid and their friends, because they kind of filter you out eventually, and that you’re not staring at them. You’re focused on driving,
but you’re really listening a lot, and you pick up a lot, you know. It could be taking them to a baseball game, doing a puzzle together, finding ways, you know, even commenting on a show. You’re both watching. Then you can talk when it’s not as intense for them.

Chris Balme (he/him): So that’s one. The other is to realize that. You know it’s natural and normal for them to want to create a little more distance from you, because again, they’ve absorbed so much of you already. They’re looking for other input and evolutionarily, that’s a smart move. They’re ready for more. So you can influence who those other people are. you know, is, is there an auntie that they can hang out with who they think is super cool, even
when they’ve had it with you, and they can. They can vent about their crazy parents to this aunt who will listen and provide, you know, the right support. This is true in my own family. Is it? You know, a coach or someone like that. So you can influence their outside of family social worlds. And sometimes that kind of light social engineering is actually the best way to keep that
influence alive.

Petal Modeste: Yeah, I like that a lot. I also remember when I was a middle schooler, that my parents somehow made our house the place where all of our friends got together, so there was always a ton of food in the fridge and snacks and games at the ready movies, and you know it was the place to hang out after school, and somehow my parents would make themselves scarce, no idea where they were, what they were doing. But you know later my mother told me that this was a very intentional thing on their part to make our home the place where people hung up because she was like. That’s how I know where you are. That’s how I know who you’re with, and generally what you’re doing, I wonder, does this kind of stuff still work?

Chris Balme (he/him): I love that strategy. Actually, I think it still works. And if you’re not in their face and they’re around peers. They will kind of forget that you’re there often, you know. You’ll kind of fade into the background. So take advantage of that. You know. There’s there was a New York Times article recently about how you know the or a few years ago about how in
some ways the ideal parent of a teen is like a potted plant. It’s kind of there in the room, but not bothering you in any way, and I think there’s truth to that.

Peta Modeste: That makes sense. What about what you call in the book facilitated peer groups so it could be a faith group. It could be like a mentorship program or hobby group. Maybe they love Legos or chess, or whatever. How can those be both helpful to parents and to the middle

Chris Balme (he/him):: Yeah, so this is probably my absolute favorite work in education. The odd thing is a lot of schools. Most schools have advisory time in a typical middle school, in the Us. At least, but often they don’t know what to do with it, or it becomes kind of a study hall. You know what it could be. What great schools do with that time is – It’s a space where kids can bring up topics, often about their social or emotional lives. There’s an adult there who’s making sure that it’s safe who’s occasionally offering suggestions, but, most importantly, is letting kids talk to one another where they can say, you know, I am super stressed about the dance, and I don’t know if it’s okay to go on my own. I don’t want to have a date, or whatever they’re might they’re
worrying about. And it’s safe enough that someone else can risk saying, Oh, me, too. I am super confused also, and they start to normalize. This is this is normal. And then someone else might say, and here’s what I did about it. And they can discuss having those, whether it’s in school or a scouting group or a faith group is just like a golden gift, if you have the chance to offer it.

Petal Modeste: The third question, that comes up a lot for middle-schoolers is what will I contribute? And you, Referenced Maria Montessori earlier in the chapter on this. You say that she had advised that the best thing we could do for our middle-schoolers is to put them to live on and operate a farm and an in, so they would constantly have to work together to create value for others. And you know, of course, this may not be practical. But why is this kind of experience exactly what middle school does need? Something of this nature? Exactly what they need to answer this question about what will they contribute?

Chris Balme (he/him): Yeah. Montessori was just so ahead of her time. In so many ways.

Petal Modeste: Seriously.

Chris Balme (he/him): Most people think of her with early childhood. That’s of course, most of her writing and work was, but she wrote one essay or a speech that she gave about an ideal middle school, and she defined this as they need to work. they need to figure out how to work with each other.
They need to provide service for objective others, and they discover their value in that. And so in her mind, that was, you know, have them work on a farm and run A, B+B, and they’ll learn all of that. And there are some Montessori middle schools out there that do that.

Peta Modestel: Wow!

Chris Balme (he/him): But I think you know what we can derive from that more practically. If you’re living in a city, maybe is they need to feel like the work they do matters to someone who’s objective to them. So, parents we do not count, we sad to say, for this particular purpose. So I mean, for example, I’ve facilitated a lot of middle-schoolers doing apprenticeships where they choose. A job could be anything. They actually go to work for a week or after school once a week. when they do something that that mentor in a real work
place says that was a great job. That is, money in the bank. You can almost see them stand up taller after they get, you know, a response like that because they feel like they’re entering the adult world, and they may overestimate how ready they are, we definitely underestimate them. But when that objective adult says, you’ve done something really good, they internalize that and feel like a valuable person as a result, and then they show up better. They’re not as resistant to us when they feel like they are that valuable, worthy person. So we can’t coop them up, you know, if middle school feels like babysitting, and all their day is structured for them. They’re going to be resistant to that for sure. When they get out there volunteering, working, it’s different story. It’s a different story.

Petal Modeste: At the same time, though, you tell us that we parents could be bridges between our children and the outside world, and when I read that I again remember back to my childhood. I guess I have to thank my parents for a lot of stuff, but you know they entertained a lot, so nearly every weekend we’d have brunch or lunch, or a dinner or something at our house
and it would be family, but also friends. And if the friends to bring their kids and what have you, “I don’t know again whether this was deliberate, and I should ask, but II remember having so many conversations with adults where they would ask what do you care about in the world, you know. Where do you want to go to school? What do you think you want to study? And I would ask them about what jobs they did. And I never really. I mean, it just was like, Okay, it was something to do. But you know, I wonder if some practical things like that make sense for parents today. I mean, I’m not saying through a dinner party every weekend. But you have a circle of friends. How can interaction with them with you? Kind of being the potted plant in some instances. But interaction with these adults. It could lead to a job it could lead to just them. Understanding what else there is to do in the world. Sparking an interest seems to me to make sense, and seems that that would be sort of a bridge, because not every school has these internships and middle-schoolers could do, or these jobs that they could do, depending on where they live. They probably need to go straight home after school. So is that something you feel that might be a practical thing parents could do from time to time.

Chris Balme (he/him): I think it makes so much sense, you know, if the only adult middle schoolers spend time with are their parents or people who are paid to be with them? That’s not enough. They need to be around that whole other world of adults who are just are representing different ways of being an adult. You know middle-schoolers are ripe for that. They’re so curious about how people handle the world. How do you make money? How do you find a passion? How do you deal with difficult things? I just think it. It’s very natural for them to thrive when they have that.

Petal Modeste: And speaking of difficult things, you also tell us in the book that one way to help them answer this question, of what can I contribute, or how will I contribute? Is that we should not ignore the charged topics of the day and we should give their opinions on those topics. Power. Tell us more about how to do that intentionally, because, God knows, Chris, we are in
charged land.

Chris Balme (he/him): Yes, we are. Yeah, this is one of those times when we can be open and honest and vulnerable, you know. Probably at least, I don’t know how to solve. The charge is up today, and for them to see that adults struggle with this, that we do not have all the answers but we often have starting points. We can say, you know, I don’t know what the heck is going
on politically, but here’s what I do, and I’m feeling overwhelmed. Or here’s someone I really trust. I think they have the best sense on it, and I ask them for advice for them to just understand how we’re making sense of a complicated world is such a gift versus saying like, Oh, we don’t talk about that, or we brush it under the rug. Then they’re just missing a learning
opportunity then. And they might find it. You know, online, for example, where we can’t really trust the quality of information they’re getting. So I think we can approach it with openness to learn together. We don’t have to assume that when they bring up a charge topic there’s a correct answer that we need to deliver in that moment that that would be unreasonable to expect of ourselves.

Petal Modeste: So okay, so we talked about those 3 currents, or those 3 questions. that the middle-schooler will inevitably encounter as part of their adolescent journey. Now let’s talk about where this river leads. Where do these stages of the journey ultimately Take them? And you say that there are 3 primary stages of this journey. The first is belonging, the second is
achievement, and the third is authenticity, and that at each stage our middle-schoolers sort of acquire new abilities to see and to manage complexity. So let’s start out with belonging. and I could see how it’s very related to the sort of How do I connect right? And who am I? How do you define belonging, though, and what behaviors signal to us that our children are working on
the tasks that are associated with this stage?

Chris Balme (he/him): So belonging is the foundation for anything good that happens in middle school. And it’s such a deep need, I think, probably for evolutionary reasons that if they don’t have it, they feel often physically unsafe, not remotely able to learn to their potential but belonging doesn’t need to mean that you’re popular, that you have lots of friends. It means, you know, on a simplest level, that there’s someone or a group that welcomes you. They’re glad you’re there when you walk into, say school in the morning, and if you have that, then you can begin going on to later stages, which I know we’ll talk about a marker of the belonging stage. And this can sometimes trigger parents is that kids want to copy someone else. You know, I’m going to wear the same clothes. We’re going to listen to the same music. The same things are cool, you know, down the line, and that that conformity can really freak us out because we feel like, Oh, gosh! My kid is losing themselves. But really it’s not a problem unless they’re stuck. So if they go through, you know a semester where they just. They are the duplicate of someone else that is like a long-term experiment to figure out what parts of that are themselves. Now, if it’s been a year, and they’re still in that. Then there are ways we can challenge them to try out other identities, maybe being in other peer groups. But most of the time. They move through it naturally. And that’s how they figure out how to belong and test out parts of who they are

Petal Modeste: Does this matter if they call themselves a Swifty for like 7 years?

Chris Balme (he/him): Taylor Swift there’s a different phenomenon.

Petal Modeste: Are there different or additional things do we need to do if our child is a member of a minority group. So let’s say, whatever school they are, maybe they are racial minority. Maybe they are neuro diverse. They have other abilities. They have a different gender identity from most of the people around them. If they are part of a minority group are there additional or different ways. We can support them. once they start to signal to us that they
working on belonging.

Chris Balme (he/him): A lot of the research and theory I’ve seen with that is about the importance of forming an identity with an in-group before being pushed into kind of more diverse situations. So you know, if you are, you know, the only dyslexic kid in your class that’s a lot to deal with and to bear and try to figure out what it means. But when you’re in a group, that’s all dyslexic, you realize that you know this difference includes superpowers, and there are others like me and I can position myself relative to them, not just relative to the whole rest of the world and I think that applies with other differences too.

Petal Modeste: So wait a minute. Let me let me stick with this for a little bit, because you know, in the United States, I guess for the next 5 or 6 years right? We will be a majority white nation, right in terms of racial categorization. So if you have a child who non-white. and they are from day one in a school where they are part of a tiny minority. Are you saying that I guess we have to pay special attention to them in a way, because if they
have never been in a group where many people are like them, and then they are in a group where many people are not like them. that’s definitely something we need to pay attention to.

Chris Balme (he/him): I think so. There, there’s a powerful book called Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Yeah. And that talks about that theory of identity development that you need to feel anchored in what the parts of you, particularly when those parts are a minority, or they’re on the receiving end of some prejudice in society, and after that, then you
have that kind of belonging as a foundation to go beyond. So I think schools are wise to recognize that and not panic when they see kids trying to find that in group first and then go beyond at the right time.

Petal Modeste: So the next stage is achievement and it seems to me. That belonging is the foundation of everything. So until our kids sort of, I guess, feel like they are welcome in a space that they belong. In a space they figured out where they fit, so to speak. It seems that they can then move on to sort of the achievement stage? and so tell us right? So tell us what
characterizes this this stage. What does achievement mean? For a middle-schooler? And how do we know? When they’re entering that stage?

Chris Balme (he/him): Yeah. So achievement stage means you want to win. and that you see the game that people play which could be any game could be the grades, game of sports game, whatever popularity. They’re more or less positive versions of those games. But you are smart enough now to deduce the rules, and you want to show that you can win. So you’ll hear it from kids. I was just talking to a student last week who was saying, you know, right now, I just really want to, you know, get the leading role. And I want to get top grades. That’s what’s most important to me. You know, I don’t have time for my friends anymore. Because that’s what I want to do. It’s like, Okay, wow. This is like textbook. They’re in the achievement stage, and it’s great. You know it. Of course it’s not the end of the road. There are limits to that. And there are times where kids eventually will start to question it and say, wait a minute like, do grades really matter or being popular, really matter? I don’t care. That comes later, you know. First they need to go through that stage of saying, I want to win.

Petal Modeste: You tell us, that one thing we should make sure of is that at least One pursuit that our middle-schooler has is one where they can feel both valued and skillful, but also on their way to mastery. And we had Angela, Duckworth, on this podcast. Many seasons ago, talking about grit, and that the ingredients of grit a passion and perseverance – like you have to like it. You have to be in it. So for those of us who have middle-schoolers and they don’t really yet have this one pursuit. What can we do to help them?

Chris Balme (he/him): The first thing I’d suggest is, maybe if we haven’t found something, or we think they haven’t found it yet is to widen our definition a bit. You know we might be thinking well, none of their core subjects in school seem to be really eliciting their passion. But oh! On the side, they are such an amazing Minecraft player that they’re running their own servers and
connecting with kids and learning how to code custom things that counts. That would that would qualify you know. Maybe they are, you know, fine with grades not amazing. But they’re the kid that their friends go to when there’s a social conflict. and they just know how to handle it, and they can resolve conflicts and make people feel at peace. That’s a gift that’s emerging that that can be on their toward mastery. So they just need one kind of tent pole. And if they can lift that tent high up enough because they know there’s one area people recognize they’re really good at then it gives them the strength to go pursue those not so great or just mediocre areas when they need to.

Petal Modeste: Well, we have to be careful here, because all my friends who are fighting with their kids about gaming and spending too much time on, you know, whatever they’re going to say, but, I’m really good at this. This is my pursuit. Alright. But II take your point. I take your point, and I actually think again, we really have to be students of our children. Huh? Because
sometimes you are focused on the sort of measurable things t like the grades, right? And are they number one in the track team, or whatever versus? Who else are they becoming? What else are they focused on? Are they really great Lego builders? Are they great story tellers? Are they writing stories. designing dresses in their rooms? Conversely, Chris, if our kids are not yet in middle school, so they’re getting there in 2, 3 years. What have you? What are some things we should be doing now? What should we be thinking about or doing with them, to ensure that they find that thing?

Chris Balme (he/him): You know, the I think the beautiful thing, particularly with younger kids, is that they are like self-directed missiles, they will. If they have space, they will direct themselves through play to their areas of peak learning. I think one of the biggest mistakes with younger kids is to create so much structure in their learning that they become passive. And it’s just okay. What’s the next order? What’s the next worksheet? What’s the next thing I’m being driven to and have to do? when we make enough space in their lives for them to choose, and of course we need to introduce them to different
things, because they don’t know all the options. Then over time. they will find things that they enjoy, and it takes a lot of patience and trust on our part, as it may not be instantaneous, or they may sign up for something and hate it 2 weeks later. But that’s part of their experimentation, they need meaningful amounts of time to test out different ideas and find what they really love.

Petal Modeste: I think it might take patience. it might take insurance, So, we are in the achievement phase and one of the things you talk about was the fact that at some point our kids will realize that they’re playing the game by other people’s rules, and they would start to feel like, Oh, wait this is not what it’s really all about. Both of us have lived in cities that are sort of highly charged and competitive. Can our kids especially if they grow up in these high achievement environments. get stuck in the achievement stage if they’re going to competitive schools, if they’re living in a competitive household, or what have you?

Chris Balme (he/him): You know. There, you can’t rush them and it’s essential they do learn how to achieve this, even after they move past that stage they should only move past it ideally after they’ve understood how to achieve and can keep using that skill, they kind of. They take their power back, saying, like, I’m not going to achieve just to please you. I’m going to be the judge of what excellence means for me, and I’m going to live to that standard which often is where their better contribution. Better career come from, I think what we can do, you know, without rushing them is just to make sure that they see many definitions of success and this, you know, back to your first question about my own background, like. I didn’t know it then, but I feel so grateful that I grew up in this family of musicians. They all had really non-traditional paths. And it wasn’t like, I thought, oh, as soon as I get my, you know, 9 to 5 job. I’ve I’m done. I’ve made it in life. I knew that I was going to have to figure it out on my own, just like they had cause. That was modeled so for us, you know, regardless of what your job is. Use your social network to connect them and show them like those dinner parties you mentioned. You know, this person is an activist. This person works for the government. This person is killing it in
business. This person went bankrupt, and they’re learning from whatever it might be. Let them see that people are building their own path, and then at the right time, which may not be when we want it to be. It could be 13 or they could be 20. They’ll start to realize, like, what do I want to do here, what’s my contribution?

Petal Modeste: Okay, so the final stage is the authenticity. And you tell us that our middle-schooler enters the stage. You just said it when they realized that trying to achieve more and more. It’s just not enough. and so this is when they are, they feel secure in their own abilities to belong, to achieve. And now they’re driven to really be themselves to be authentic. I have to say I was a little skeptical. This is me. Probably this is my socialization right under estimating the middle-schooler, but I have to say I was like, but really, can middle-schoolers like start to feel that sense of authenticity? Well, you know, when they’re 14, 15, I mean, really.

Chris Balme (he/him): You tell us I’ll just share my one perspective. I don’t have all the answers, and I’ll say, you know this. This is a cycle we go through many times in life. So maybe if you’ve had a great middle school run, you feel belonging. Eventually you feel like you can achieve, and you start to feel authentic. And then, oh, crap! I’m in high school now. I’m the lowest one on the totem pole, and you go back to the beginning. Do I belong? Do I? Can I achieve? And same for us, you know, as an adult? Say, you take a new job
right back to the beginning. Do I belong on this team? Do they actually welcome me here, and then can I do valuable things to other people? See that? Do I get promoted. And only after that, usually we start to feel like, okay, I can really be myself. And I can admit that this part of the job I’ve never been good at, but this I can really do, so they’re not done depends on the kid, you know. Some will may not tap into that till high school. but I think that if they have the right conditions around them in middle school, where the school is not saying, there’s only one version of success. You know some schools kind of want to keep people in the achievement stage. They want them to feel like grades are the most important single thing in your life, or
maybe sports are. That’s the school’s culture. So ideally, if that is your school, you can introduce your kids to other definitions. and just know, that’s all going in the background, you know, for them. And when they start to question it, which will happen sooner or later, they’ll say, actually, I don’t care if I’m popular anymore. That doesn’t matter, or you know, I realize that if I
use long words with Mister so and so he’ll give me an a so that great doesn’t really mean that much to me anymore. So when they reach that point, you can say, Okay now you’re starting to take this power back, and you’ll figure out what’s worth it to you to achieve. That’s a fun moment to be with the kids.

Peta Modeste: I can imagine. Are there signs of this like, how can we tell when they’re sort of entering the authenticity stage? What are we looking for?

Chris Balme (he/him): I think this, they’ll start questioning the games we play, you know, grades, sports, clothes, things that they were yearning for now they’ll start to show like I maybe I don’t care anymore. And the first time they question it they’re not really free from it. They’re just starting to wonder, you know. Maybe a year later they start to really change.

Petal Modeste: how can we support them? Chris, what are 2 or 3 things, we can do once we see this is starting to happen? How can we support them in finding their authenticity?

Chris Balme (he/him): one thing I talk about in the book is this, cognitive bias called the anchoring effect, and I would point to that here, which is
We anchor on earlier information, and we value it more than later. So like first impressions are an example of that. But as parents, we have this challenge as beautiful challenge of, we have all the early information about their early lives. We remember when they were teeny, tiny, defenseless. Remember when we would, you know, chaperone their play dates, and now they’re ready for something more. But we still remember them as they used to be, and we’ll probably under it estimate them. Well, they, on the other hand, are thinking I’m practically an adult already. I see through you, and they’re overestimated. So there’s a lot of conflict in between those 2 goals. And so one of the best things we can do is realize that we have to be a little uncomfortable with how much freedom and responsibility they have. It doesn’t mean we give them everything. But if we’re totally content. Then we’re probably holding them back. We’re keeping them in our comfort, zone, which is a lagging indicator so go a little bit further.

Petal Modeste: So all those sleepless nights. Okay. Thank you. Chris. So you know, I think the other piece of that is also helping other adults in their lives. Support them. Because I know in my own family, I have had conflicts with my mother, my mother-in-law. about sort of how much freedom I’m giving to my kids at this, how can we help other adults in their lives? Support our children’s authenticity?

Chris Balme (he/him): You know this is a hard one, as it’s people who may not have signed up to change. I think the one thing we can control is ourselves at least somewhat, and we can be that authentic and vulnerable person. We can publicly try new things to be a beginner with something, acknowledge failures, acknowledged emotions that are difficult. Again, knowing that middle schoolers can read them on us anyways, so we may as well be open about it, and that modeling. It not only gives middle schoolers permission to be weird and imperfect, but it will also give the adults around you a little bit more permission to acknowledge mistakes or acknowledge that you know they’re strict, but they’re not always sure if they’re too strict. Those conversations happen when we are vulnerable. I think there’s a form of leadership in that.

Petal Modeste: So you know, we we’re running out of time. But I want to make sure that I let our listeners know that. Another thing you spend quite a bit of time in the book. Talking about is what physical practices and what social-emotional skills also need to be part of this journey for our middle-schoolers. I had Lisa Lewis on the podcast a couple of seasons ago. She is she wrote this book about the efforts in California to legislate that high schools start later, and you talk about this in the book. Also, if we have kids who are highly sensitive to food textures or noise. You quote Dr. Mona Delahooke, who also was on the podcast, about how we prepare them for different environments based on the sensitivities we know they have. I do want to touch a little bit on social emotional skills- you tell us that there are 4 categories of social, emotional skills that our middle schoolers will need to develop. First category is self- awareness and self-management. And then social awareness and social management. Can you briefly define each of those for us? And then what are some things we can do or let our kids do
to help them develop these skills.

Chris Balme (he/him): Hmm! This is one of the things I love most about this age – it is the probably the prime developmental window in their lives to learn social intelligence in particular, because, again, that social hardware has just turned on. And now they’re trying to write the software literally in their brains to process all this data. And we can help them with that. I think, in the past. Often we’ve kind of left it to chance. We’ve said, you know. Figure out on your own how to resolve conflicts, or some people are just, you know, have big emotions. And that’s just personality. Now, we realize it’s all about skills. All of these are teachable skills. So you know, with those 4 that you referenced. II think the simple way the first step, at least, is to model them. you know, to talk about your own self-awareness when you’re having a hard day instead of just maybe talking about it with your spouse, you know, after the kids have gone to bed, could you talk about it over the dinner table. Be like, you know my boss is driving me nuts, and I had to go take a walk for 15 min to calm down. That’s awesome. You’ve just acknowledged that you have hard emotions and given them a tool, that kind of teaching which is so subtle. Hopefully, they won’t even perceive it as teaching, you know, is directly giving them social and emotional skills.

Petal Modeste: I like that and that’s self-awareness and self-management, you’re way enough to know you’re being driven nuts, and you are managing that feeling by taking a walk rather than taking it out on someone else. That’s a good example.

Petal Modeste: So you know, Chris, the goal of this podcast. Is to help parents understand the world in which our children are coming of age so that we can raise them to reach their greatest potential and positively impact that world. And their experience in middle school is obviously critical to setting them up to realize their purpose and fulfill their potential. I talked earlier about how important it is for us to be students of our children and so this question goes to what is the right middle school from my particular child? And how do we? What do we look for? Let’s forget, for the time being what our resources might be where we might live. What are some of the key things we look for to try to match a middle school to who our children might be.

Chris Balme (he/him): There’s so many things to say about this. And I’ll try to make it brief. I think the real curriculum of any school is the teachers, mindsets about themselves, their students, and the world. and we can sense that. And you know, if you have the chance to visit the school to observe how teachers and students interact, even just to feel what it’s like to be in those spaces you’ll often pick up, especially if you’ve seen several schools, and you can compare. You’ll pick up the subtle differences. Is this a school that doesn’t trust kids, and just, you know, controls every second of their day? Or is this a school where teachers are trying something different? Because a student suggested it, or making, you know, spaces such as a student government that does more than token things, but actually has voice. Then you’re picking up. Oh, this is a place where teachers are showing that middle schoolers are capable of trust and that they can do valuable things. They’re not just kind of widgets in our factory moving down the assembly line, so that that would be starting point. I would say also that if you don’t have the privilege of choosing a middle school, but you just need to deal with what you’ve got. You can be, as you said earlier, that bridge to the world outside of school. So sometimes schools become very insular, you know, from lack of resources or the busyness with, you know, getting ready for tests. But middle schoolers need to get exposed to the bigger worlds, you know, they need to figure out that something is worth their time because they talk to someone
who struggles with this problem, or who started a business to solve it? Or is it political activist or whatever? So parents\ Your kid doesn’t want to see you in the classroom. Probably like, maybe they can. Elementary school. Yeah, more or less politely. Make that clear. But if you can be the bridge because you do have access to the bigger worlds. Can you get them to your workplace or arrange an experience where a cool person, you know, can zoom into their classroom and talk about why, what they’re doing right now, actually, is really relevant to the world’s needs or opportunities. that’s a gift that, I think a lot of middle schools could really use

Petal Modeste: So in the book. Chris, you talk about a boarding school in Japan where middle schoolers live in dorms, without adults. They manage a building, the food garden, they cook their own food. They manage a budget, and there are several schools, including the one where you work now that show that educators are responding to this call to make the middle school
experience much richer and one that truly prepares students to thrive and to make their contribution at your school currently. You teach a human flourishing curricula. I have never really seen this, except, I think, as related to the World Economic, but never have had a chance to really understand it. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Why, it sets your schools and others with similar approaches, apart from the more traditional middle schools.

Chris Balme (he/him): Yeah, I think, at heart the idea of human flourishing as the curriculum is a kind of reordering of priorities. Maybe the traditional route is, get your academics done, and on the side, you know, we’ll help you out with your kind of more personal or inner needs. And what we’re saying is, actually, it goes much better if you start off developing human. Well, being, then do the academics, and you’ll find that the academics go faster, deeper, that they’re more memorable because kids are not up in unresolved social dramas or huge emotions. They have no tools to manage. So start with the human. Wellbeing. And of course you’re really doing both at the same time. But it’s about giving weight to the human. Well, being through things. For example, like student agency that students need to feel like. They have some control over their lives. And there’s interesting research that points to declining independence in childhood as possibly linked to the increase in mental health problems that adolescents are showing. So kids need to feel like, I’m not just kind of being controlled completely by this institution. But I
have voice, real voice, so I can suggest a project. I can do a passion project. I can change something about the school if I get enough support that’s just one of the ingredients in wellbeing, and on that foundation, then you can pour
yourself into your learning. You know much more than if half of your mind is trying to figure out. You know this conflict, or resentful at this adult. Those are those are all breaks on the process.

Petal Modeste: So, Hakuba, you know I don’t know when the school was founded. But It seems to me that this just this is just a completely sensible approach, and I guess where I’m going with this is. why is it so difficult, or why does it seem to be so difficult for others to adopt this approach. I mean, I understand we have a history in what we feel are the building blocks of a
good education. There are only so many hours in the day. But now that the science has shown us so much about the developmental stages of a human being, and what matters when? Why is it so difficult for our quote unquote traditional schools to sort of pivot? What are some of the things we can do to sort of get more of this thinking to be reflected in in what our kids experience is in middle school?

Chris Balme (he/him): Yeah. And I am an optimist at heart. So I see that
changes are happening already. And I think COVID actually accelerated those changes even while it caused a lot of damage. Obviously, yeah, I think the first step for probably the folks listening to this, if assuming they’re mostly parents is to demand it. As parents. You know, schools, traditional schools are hard to change, and we’ve been operating on almost exactly the same model for 150 years. That’s quite a track record of resisting change while the world has transformed many times over. So we need to have modest expectations. We need to also offer things outside of school, knowing we have much more control and creativity there than in school. But we need to demand that schools shift and not, you know, wholesale transformation is asking a lot. But we can insert things where they’re already connectors. So
advisory is one. The average American middle school has this block of time, and frankly, doesn’t know what to do with it. So get there’s great training out there. There are resources to make that a really rich time where social and emotional learning happens. Project based learning is another one. Obviously, we have all the class time, you know, Preset. But how we teach within that there’s often a lot of flexibility and using projects as themes works for middle schoolers because they can be collaborative. It’s not just, you know. Listen to me, memorize, regurgitate. It’s you know, you and these 3 other friends are trying to tackle a problem where there are many possible solutions. And along the way we’ll go through all kinds of academic units. But
you’re choosing your own path, and it’s a social journey. That’s just going to work much better for them. So it takes training there. So there’s a lot to do to get to that. But it doesn’t take changing the entire school to insert these things in.

Petal Modeste: Wow well, thank you Chris for joining us, I’m, sorry we’re out of time. I could talk to you about this stuff forever. But I really appreciate how you have distilled your work of over 2 decades into this book. It is so helpful. And it’s helpful for even parents who might be past the middle school years. Because to your point, our kids can go back and start again in terms of this journey every time they’re in a new phase of life. They’re kind of having to redo this, all of us to do this again. So it’s really instructive. It’s really written for novices like us. I appreciate you coming to talk to us, and I expect you will be invited back again, and you better say yes. Thank you.

Chris Balme (he/him): Thank you so much for having me. And, as you just said, I think that’s the gift of parenting a middle schooler is that they’re going to change us, shake up our ideas. And actually, we need that cause. We’re still growing. We’re not done evolving. So hope you have a good time seizing
that gift being on the white water river with them. Thank you so much for having me.

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