Education Leader Chris Balme on Navigating the Tricky Middle School Years

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Middle school might not feel like a very enchanting time in our lives — it definitely didn’t feel that way for me when I was living through it and navigating those very complicated middle school years. But according to my guest Chris Balme, middle school is a time of great magic and opportunity if we know what we’re looking for. Chris Balme, an education leader and writer, is passionate about helping young people on their journey of discovering their human potential, which he writes about in his new book Finding the Magic in Middle School: Tapping Into the Power and Potential of the Middle School Years. 

In our conversation, Chris explains the three stages of identity development a child goes through in navigating middle school, how we as parents will want to adapt our parenting styles change as our kids reach these stages, and how to handle it if and when our child breaking our trust. We also talked about what individuation is and what it means to become a better companion for our kids, which is a reframe I really love.


About Chris Balme

Chris Balme is an education leader and writer, passionate about helping young people discover more of their human potential. As Co-Founder and Head of School at Millennium School, a lab school in San Francisco, Chris helped pioneer new learning methods for middle schoolers, based in developmental science. Chris then founded Argonaut, an online program to bring social-emotional learning to more students. He now serves as the Founding Principal of Hakuba International School in Japan, developing learning approaches that foster human and environmental well-being.

Chris received the Ashoka Fellowship as a leading global changemaker in education, and regularly speaks, trains, and writes for parents and teachers around the world. He’s the author of the book Finding the Magic in Middle School, and writes a regular newsletter called Growing Wiser about parenting and teaching adolescents


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • Why Chris believes the middle school years are magical
  • What the three stages of identity development for middle school students are, and how kids may progress through them
  • What individuation is and how to navigate it with our children
  • Advice for parents regarding scaffolding in a way that supports their child’s development
  • How to navigate a child breaking our trust
  • What companioning is and how to do that for our kids


Resources mentioned for navigating middle school


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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

This season of Tilt Parenting is being brought to you by the Differently Wired Club. If you’re looking to dive deeper with me and get live personal coaching support, be part of an incredible parent community and focus on creating significant change in your parenting world. Check out my Differently Wired Club program. Doors open for a few days at the end of every month, Learn more at

Chris Balme  00:25

If we can see it through that developmental lens of what are they really trying to do here? And how do we accompany them to meet those developmental needs? Then I think you see kids who are just not the typical middle school story, not rolling their eyes and ignoring you, but actually very motivated people when you’re helping them do what they need to do.

Debbie Reber  00:49

Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber and I have a great episode for you today. Middle school may not feel like a very enchanting time in our lives. It definitely did not feel that way for me when I was living through it. But according to my guest, Chris Balme, middle School is a time of great magic and opportunity for our kids. And for us as parents if we know what we’re looking for. Chris Baum, an education leader and writer is passionate about helping young people on their journey of discovering their human potential, which he writes about in his new book Finding the Magic in Middle School. In our conversation today, Chris explains the three stages of identity development a child goes through in middle school, how we as parents will want to adapt our parenting styles as our kids reach these stages and how to navigate our child breaking our trust. We also talked about what individuation is and what it means to become a better companion for our kids, which is a reframe I really love. A little bit more about my guest Chris Balme is the co-founder and head of school at Millennium school, a lab school in San Francisco embracing new learning methods for middle schoolers based in developmental science. He’s also the founder of Argonaut, an online program to bring social emotional learning to more students. Before I get to our interview, there’s a new way to engage with me in the podcast this season. Till parenting is partnering with a new app called Fable to host a special tilt parenting pod club. What’s a Pod Club, it’s like a book club. But for podcasts. Together, we can go deeper on every single episode and share highlights, comments, questions, related resources and more. And it is completely free to join my new pod club and the discussion surrounding my conversation with Chris and the magic of the middle school years. Just download the fable app on your phone or device and search for tilt parenting. Or you can go to for a direct link. I hope to see you there. And now here is my conversation with Chris.

Debbie Reber  03:07

Hey, Chris, welcome to the podcast.

Chris Balme  03:09

Thanks, Debbie. It’s great to be here.

Debbie Reber  03:10

I really enjoyed your book. And I want to really dive into that. But before we do, I always ask people to tell me a little bit about their personal story and their personal why I know you have a really interesting background. So maybe you could just tell us some of the highlights about how you came to be doing what you’re doing.

Chris Balme  03:28

Yeah, thank you. I think maybe like a lot of people I got into this by heading in the opposite direction of life turned me around. You know, I was an unhappy middle schooler and high schooler for that matter. I thought school was boring. I didn’t know how to connect with people. I just kind of marched through it and went to college thinking, I’m not sure what I’ll do, but it will not be education. That was the one thing I was confident about. And so of course, here I am. Through the course of business school and other adventures, I realized it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if you want to do something good for the world, it’s going to involve kids. And so I became a student teacher to try to test out if that was really for me and got placed in a seventh grade classroom, not my plan. I don’t even know if that was anyone’s plan or just random. And got hooked pretty quickly, partly because I think middle school is such a fascinating time of life. And so under-appreciated. And partly because the school I was in in the system I got exposed to was so dysfunctional, that I felt like I could contribute here somehow. And then, you know, 20 years went by, here we are and I’ve been a teacher, run a nonprofit working with middle school kids and then started in middle school. And then of course I finally wrote this book about those adventures and what I’ve learned about middle schoolers along the way.

Debbie Reber  04:55

That’s great. Yeah, I do agree. Middle school was such an interesting time. Before I started Tilt, I spent many years writing books for teenagers and tweens, mostly because I, too, had a terrible experience. As a middle schooler, as a teenager, I consider myself to be a recovering teenager. And I really wanted to support those kids. And there was a book I just wanted to mention, have you heard the book Not Much Just Chillin? Did that come up in your research?

Chris Balme  05:24

No, I’m adding it to my list.

Debbie Reber  05:25

It’s a fascinating look at middle school. And it came out in the early aughts, I think, and it really blew my mind a bit about what was really going on in the lives of middle school students. So a very different book, but I wanted to add it to your queue. I’m sure you have a very extensive list that you’re getting through at any given time.

Chris Balme  05:45

It’s true, but that sounds like a good one. I think the story is still so strong about how we think middle school is going to be mean, I was at an event last night for elementary school for my kids. And one of the speakers made the comment of enjoy elementary school because middle school is coming and it’ll be the worst years of their life. That’s just thinking again, Wow, talk about a self fulfilling prophecy. We all hold this negative belief, and then we make it come true. And it does not have to view that way.

Debbie Reber  06:13

Well, that’s a great pivot, because the title of your book is finding the magic in middle school. And as you just said, I don’t think it is a time that many of us would ascribe the word magic to and so I’m just wondering, as a starting point, what do you find magical about middle school? Why is that such a perfect word?

Chris Balme  06:33

Yeah, thank you. I mean, the first thing I would say is from a neuroscience perspective, that we know there are two peak times of brain growth in our whole lifespan. And those are early childhood and early adolescence. So roughly speaking, you know, zero to five and the middle through mid high school years. So those are probably the hardest years to be a parent, because of how much change is happening. And I have kids on kind of both ends of that spectrum. So I see it in different ways. But they’re also the most opportune years. And the middle school years, in particular, Maria Montessori more than 100 years ago said, this is when the social individual is created. And I think that observation has really been borne out in the research since then, you are recreating your whole self, your whole identity as a social person, you can pick up all the things that are going on around you who’s in group, who’s out group, where status is, where hierarchy is. And that causes you to have to rethink everything about yourself. And for me to get to be with a young person who’s figuring out what their authentic identity is, now that they can pick up all the things that you and I pick up as adults in terms of the social worlds, it’s such an opportunity to to help them make sense of that, and to be with them while they’re changing that much. So, for me, if we can see it through that developmental lens, what are they really trying to do here? And how do we accompany them to meet those developmental needs, then I think you see kids who are just not the typical middle school story, not rolling their eyes and ignoring you, but actually very motivated people when you’re helping them do what they need to do.

Debbie Reber  08:20

Yeah, it is a real reframe. That’s what I really enjoyed about the book is it feels very exciting, really to think about what’s going on. And as you said, opportunities are there for us, if we want to be in companionship with our kids, and that’s something that really jumped out at me is this concept of being a companion and I do want to talk about that. But before we even get into it much more deeply. I wanted to just acknowledge that we’re talking about middle schoolers. But you also just said this really can go up through mid High School. We also know that neurodivergent kids, many of them, if not all of them are on a different timeline. So their social emotional age may not match their biological age. And so just for listeners, I think this really applies to our kids and such a broader level in terms of what’s really going on with them as they consider and forge their identities. Right.

Chris Balme  09:16

Exactly. Well, it’s one of the reasons I love your book, which is talking about how we adapt ourselves to a wider range of learning styles is what serves neurodivergent kids, and it’s also what serves middle school kids, because as they start to accelerate their development just based on brain changes, development does not have an equal even pace across kids, even in you know, quote, unquote, neurotypical if that’s even something that exists. So I think that same spirit of following the kid and being more of a guide and companion to them versus expecting lockstep movements. It really serves any population of middle school kids that I’ve seen.

Debbie Reber  09:56

And I just want to acknowledge for all of us, it would be a lot easier if it was this very linear process with just a straight up slant, even if the slant wasn’t so severe, but that’s not what it looks like it’s very back and forth and messy. So just putting that out there. You mentioned identity. And you do talk a lot about that I really appreciated these key steps to identity development that you outlined. I don’t know if I have read it in that same way. So would you take a few minutes to talk about the three stages of identity development in a kid?

Chris Balme  10:30

Yeah. So in the book, I talk about three core questions that middle schoolers are driven to answer, and then three stages they go through as they’re answering it. So maybe I’ll start with that piece. Ground Zero for a good middle school experience is a sense of belonging, when they first kind of arrive on the social scene. And they, because of brain changes, they’re picking up all these details that they hadn’t noticed before about friendships and groups. Usually, the very first thing that happens is a fear and a question of, do I fit in my welcome here? Do I belong, and if they’re not sure about the answer to that, it’s really hard to go anywhere else. That’s, that is kind of almost basic safety level security. So that very first stage of identity development is you’re willing to do almost anything to belong, willing to conform, willing to forget parts of yourself, willing to copy someone else. And if that’s just a brief time, if you’re doing those as experiments, it’s totally normal developmentally, to go through conformity to be totally obsessed with the same Kpop band as your other friend, whatever it might be, that is fine. But the trick is to not get stuck there. So the next stage developmentally is what we call achievements. And that’s where you’re starting to realize there are different versions of success, different games that are played, whether that’s the game of grades, the actual athletic game game of popularity, more or less positive games that we can participate in, and we can navigate, you can find a way to receive some kind of esteem from others. And then the last stage and the one I hope middle schoolers can get to with the right support, we call authenticity. And that’s where you’ve learned to belong, and you’ve learned how to play games. But now you’re choosing the games that feel important to you to play. So maybe you don’t care about the popularity game, and you’re comfortable being yourself, which is a huge theater nerd, or whatever it might be, a combination of interests and, and passions. That is an ideal outcome from these early adolescent years that you’ve noticed that you’re in a social world, and you’re still comfortable, you’ve returned to being comfortable being yourself.

Debbie Reber  12:43

Yeah, so I’ll just say personally, as I read that, I felt like I didn’t achieve that authenticity piece. So I was in my late 20s. Like, I don’t know if that’s typical. But I’m just wondering, first of all, these three stages belonging, achievement and authenticity, is that the kind of thing where typically a young person will move back and forth among them that sound like they check one off, and then they are fully in the next one? Is it fluid?

Chris Balme  13:09

Yes, I think and there’s interesting research behind this, that when we enter a new chapter, a new challenge, even as adults, like say, you take a new job, and it’s quite different from the last one, maybe different industry, you’ll go through the same three steps of, oh, shoot, do I belong here? Was this a good idea, and then achievement, I can actually be valued for my contribution. And then authenticity. Here’s what I actually love to do here. So I think we repeat the cycle. The difference for middle school is that it’s their first time going through that cycle. So the intensity is up there.

Debbie Reber  13:43

Okay, that makes so much sense. And especially that belonging piece, I wanted to talk about that a little more, I thought that section was so powerful, and it really helped me understand how strong that drive is to feel a sense of belonging with others. Also, again, neuro divergent kids, twice exceptional kids, we know often really feel like outliers, or maybe have struggled to ever feel as if they have belonged in a group, you wrote a quote that I pulled out as sometimes whether it’s as a result of earlier trauma, stressful home or school environments, or a different pace of maturing, some students may seem to hang on to a conformist belonging at all costs mentality for years, I have seen that a lot in this community. And you mentioned they can get stuck there. So I’m just wondering if parents are hearing this and they’re like, Yeah, my kid either hasn’t ever felt like they belonged. And now they have a sense of belonging, and it’s so strong that they’re stuck there. Or maybe they haven’t even gone into or found this space or enter this phase. What would you advise parents and navigating this?

Chris Balme  14:50

Yeah, so first thing is to not worry if they seem to be going through a conformist stage, as we were saying for a shorter time because that’s absolutely normal. But if it seems like they spend a year or more, and they’re still trying to become a twin of someone else or a group, I think there are two things. One is about what we model as adults. And one of the things I love about parenting at this age is it’s an invitation to be weird, because they’re weird. And they need to see our authenticity, to feel a sense of permission to be themselves. So first and foremost, to maybe take a step beyond what you’ve shared with them before about your own life, your passions, your hobbies, your unfinished parts, we all have lots of those. Then the second is about how can we tilt the playing field toward belonging in their social life. So part of that is about the school environment. If School is a place where there’s a lot of social conflict or toxicity, cliques or bullying, then it might be about finding other places after school, summer camps. Some of that depends on privilege, but where there’s an opportunity to help them find it doesn’t have to be a big group. But one consistent friend meets the need for belonging, a small group even better.

Debbie Reber  16:06

That’s good to know, one consistent friend, what if the consistent friend or the group that our child has found belonging in is a group that we as a parent would rather they’re not participating in? I think that must happen all the time. I’m in so many listservs, where this is a big topic of conversation. So how do we navigate that if we recognize the benefits of this sense of belonging, and we have concerns about the peer group?

Chris Balme  16:32

Yes, that is a really hard one. Because if you go in with a, I don’t want you hanging out with that kid, we all know what’s gonna happen in response, and it is their job to individuate it and find themselves beyond their family so that that resistance is also developmentally normal. I think what it means is that we can’t just ban someone, instead, we have to find other peer groups that they want to be in, and let that draw energy over. So sometimes it’s engineering and invitation that there’s another kid or another group that you think they would enjoy and is positive, could they be invited peer to peer to be part of that? Or could you just arrange that they happen to be side by side working on something with those students or in that project or that other activity, the aim is to have them hooked by the desire to be around a certain group of peers, rather than following our requests, which would be too easy to resist?

Debbie Reber  17:29

Right? So it’s more about exposure to different types of peer groups. Okay, that makes total sense.

Debbie Reber  17:38

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Debbie Reber  18:21

You mentioned individuation. That’s something I’d also like to explore if you could, even as a starting point, explain what exactly individuation is. I’m very familiar with it myself. But I would like to hear your thoughts on that and how we as parents, especially again, parents who have differently wired kids can support that process because our kids may need extra scaffolding. I think that dance of how do I support this child’s individuation when they may need me for executive function and other things going on? How do we navigate that?

Chris Balme  18:55

Yes. Oh, such a good question. So as I understand individuation, it’s a process that begins around puberty, where most kids start to seek their identity outside of their family, it can be incredibly hard for parents, it can feel like a rejection. And parents often go through a form of grief. But I think a different way to see it is that they have downloaded so much from you, in ways that they aren’t even conscious of your core views of life, yourself, the world, what’s important. And now they’re seeing that the world is way more complicated and interesting than they had known before, just because their brain is now opening them to the social world. And they want to figure out what is going on over there. And who am I around these people? So it’s primarily peer driven, but it can also be other adults. I think sometimes we parents miss that part. It doesn’t mean blanket rejection of all adults, it means that they’re looking for different sources of influence. So could be a coach, could be a mentor. It could be a great teacher, as well as, of course, peers that they want. to figure out how to be around peers.

Debbie Reber  20:02

Before we talk about how to support kids in a way that feels authentic, especially with scaffolding, I just want to say I appreciate that you pointed that out, because I think it is hard for some parents to see their child bonding with maybe a relative or a teacher having a private relationship with other adults, whereas that used to be the relationship they had with their child. And so I would just encourage parents to think of that is such a positive thing to have other trusting adults in our kids lives, who they feel safe, and in relationship with, to talk about things, I think is such a gift that we as parents can give our kids that trust and being like, I respected this relationship. And I don’t need to be involved in all of the little details.

Chris Balme  20:49

Exactly. In the idea that one or two parents can provide everything a kid needs, I think it doesn’t make sense at any age. And it especially doesn’t make sense when they’re becoming tweens and teens, and their world is opening.

Debbie Reber  21:04

Yeah, going back to the scaffolding piece, I made a note here of something you talked about called the anchoring effect that really resonated . You describe it as the way many adults let their early impressions of young people guide them. We see our kid is this person who can’t do X, Y, and Z. And as a result, we can sometimes miss the growth that they have done and that there’s so much more capable than we give them credit for. What advice do you have for parents to test the waters then and see what their kids are ready for and to support them in this way?

Chris Balme  21:37

Yeah, thank you for raising that. I think that is maybe the biggest source of conflict between parents and tweens that we tend to underestimate what they’re ready for. We’re still remembering them, as you know, six year olds, and they tend to overestimate what they’re ready for. And there’s a big gap there that can create a lot of conflict. I think the first maybe just simple thing is that if we’re in our comfort zone as parents, we’re probably holding them back. What is comfortable for us is probably where they were two years ago. So it doesn’t mean you suddenly give them the keys to the kingdom. But I think one step beyond your comfort zone is wise. And they’ll feel trusted. And they’ll feel like you get them because they’ve probably been thinking, why are you holding me back to some extent. And always knowing that you can treat things as experiments. It doesn’t mean suddenly, from this day forth, you have the right to stay out as long as you want. No, it’s saying let’s try an experiment next week where I’m not going to remind you about x and you can go do this. And then we’ll debrief we’ll see did that go? Well, what did you learn from it, that can invite a different kind of conversation?

Debbie Reber  22:45

Yeah, I love that approach. And the reminder that there really is nothing comfortable about parenting, I know that many of us would like that not to be the case. This is a topic of frequent conversation between my therapist and I, and you talk about doing inner work, which is another thing I love. That’s something I talk a lot about it at Tilt Parenting. But a lot of this is about doing our own work so that we can be more comfortable in the discomfort. Because as you said, and as the research shows, these are all not just natural, but critical processes for our kids to go through. These are stages they have to go through in order to progress. And I feel like we know this intellectually, but really kind of having a felt sense of this is okay, and this is what’s meant to happen is a totally different thing.

Chris Balme  23:33

I couldn’t agree more if I had to just say one word that I think sums up so much of this book, it’s trust, that they deserve more of our trust than we give them. They’re not they’re not perfect, either. They’re going to make many, many mistakes, because that’s how we all learn. But they’re, they’re worthy of more trust. And when we trust them, we tend to see better versions of themselves. And we might have the chance to relax. It’s not going to make it easy. I get that as a parent but some trust goes a long way.

Debbie Reber  24:04

You brought up trust. And I do think that is such an important thing. And the reality is sometimes our kids are going to make mistakes, or they are going to break our trust. And so how do we navigate that then if a child breaks our trust, you mentioned experimentation. So I imagine that’s a part of it. But how do we navigate that kind of situation?

Chris Balme  24:22

Yeah, I think the first thing is something I know you mentioned in your book as well, which is the importance of having parent community that if you feel like you’re out this alone, it’s going to be overwhelming without doubt. So having other parents you can laugh and cry with half a glass of wine with will be very helpful. And then second, I think we all are gonna get triggered by our kids sometimes. And when we notice that big emotional reaction in ourselves to try to pause if we can and trace back whatever behavior or statement just got us triggered. trace that back to a developmental need. and say, I know that they’re sincerely working on something for their growth. But something went sideways in the course of that from there to their behavior. So for example, you know, you get a call from school that your kid has been bullying someone, that would be probably a triggering situation for most of us before you react and go into punishment mode to figure out like, what were they trying to do? I know, in many cases of bullying I’ve seen it’s someone who does not know how to connect that they are trying to figure out how do I make a friend feel valuable and feel wanted. And that is a beautiful drive that all humans share. And before we go into punishment mode, we can start thinking, How do I help them express that drive more positively? Because it went really sideways and they harmed someone, but the actual drive is positive. So this is easier said than done. Takes a lot to be able to pause, and I struggle with this myself. But I think that would be my top recommendation.

Debbie Reber  26:03

Yeah, no, that’s great. It is really hard to do. Because we can be really confronted by the things that our kids do. And we can make it mean something about us and how we have our own triggers and baggage around it. I love this question. What were they trying to do? That’s something I talked about in Differently Wired. And there’s an ADHD coach named Anders Rana, who first mentioned that to me that reframe. And it’s just such an important reminder. So thank you for reminding me that there’s always a reason, right? There’s always a reason and knowing that this idea that there is a developmental need behind it, there is something there is some kind of underlying motivation for that action. In most cases, I would say 99.9% of the cases, it’s not like a decision by a child to do this terrible, offensive, obnoxious thing. There’s this underlying need that they have or driver?

Chris Balme  26:59

Exactly, yeah, I think they are really always working hard to grow. Even when that looks like they’re rolling their eyes at you and doing nothing. That might be because they feel like they can’t grow in that moment. And they’re waiting, they are sincerely trying to figure out how to be a grown up in many ways.

Debbie Reber  27:18

You could not pay me enough to go back to those years. I mean,

Chris Balme  27:24

It is not easy.

Debbie Reber  27:25

It was not easy. Again, I spent years really re parenting myself, which is why I kept writing books. For teenagers. I’m like, Okay, if I could save any teens from this mistake that I made, or from this situation, this is just such a nice reminder about what an incredible time it is for these kids and how much they do need us. And that we can be in relationship with them in a way that feels a lot better than this kind of conflict or a power struggle that so many parents tend to be with their tweens and teens. With that, I want to just talk briefly about this idea of companioning. And you’re talking about the role of parents in the lives of middle school kids. And basically you say how to be the parents that our kids need? I’d never heard of that word before. I loved it. Can you explain that concept and talk about how we can do that for our kids?

Chris Balme  28:14

Yeah, so the metaphor I sometimes use and it’s in the book is if you imagine that you are going out on a big wilderness expedition somewhere really beautiful and maybe slightly dangerous, like you’re hiking in the Arctic or something like that. And if you can imagine you could hire one guide to accompany you on that. What kind of person would you want? And I think for most people a range of answers, but I think some common points are obviously this person needs to know the terrain. And if you’re about to do something dangerous, they need to stop you from hurting yourself. But most of the time, if you’ve just hired a guide, and this is your trip and your adventure, you don’t want someone who’s constantly lecturing, you are only talking about the dangers, hopefully, someone they’re enjoying themselves, and they’re pointing out things that are beautiful, and they are appreciating you and listening and letting you have your adventure. So I think that is our job description. If you see an adolescent as someone on an epic adventure, you know, an adventure doesn’t need a boss traveling with them. They need a good companion, someone who will jump in when they’re about to hurt themselves, but most of the time is there to help them enjoy the adventure. That’s the idea of companioning

Debbie Reber  29:30

Yeah, I love that. There’s something you said in the book you said learning to be a companion is an art. It involves being able to witness someone without trying to fix them. And I was like, That pretty much sums up everything we’re doing here as parents, right?

Chris Balme  29:47

Yeah, talk about one sentence that probably takes a lifetime to figure out that.,

Debbie Reber  29:51

It’s indeed indeed that the idea of compounding it makes so much sense. I appreciate that metaphor. We were talking before we hit record about Our friend Ned Johnson and Bill Stixrud who I mentioned on the show, probably one out of every five episodes, but they talk about us being consultants for our kids, especially surrounding homework and those kinds of tasks. But that’s such a good vision or picture to have in mind, like my kids on an epic adventure, I just appreciate that that energy feels really good, like I can do that I can be a companion.

Chris Balme  30:26

Excellent, I can probably get carried away about this. But the idea of adventure as not something that’s always positive going to Disneyland is not what I mean, an adventure is like, a big trip that we’re undertaking that will have moments of struggle, but also real moments of self discovery and awe. That that is absolutely where they are. I mean, if we can think back to those years in our lives and realize what it was like, remember, you know, to wake up feeling really difference, to have your body changing, to have your friendships changing, just to be getting smarter, like a lot smarter over the course of these years, that I think that’s worthy of the term adventure, and it gets a happier place to be for us as parents.

Debbie Reber  31:10

Yeah, for sure, for sure. I wanted to touch upon the idea of this essential experience project you shared in a chapter called beyond school. I loved that it was a very detailed list of things to think about. Can you talk about what that project is?

Chris Balme  31:28

Yeah, so the idea there is that starting around middle school, a lot of fear creeps into how we think about their learning experiences. Elementary, we often feel much more open to play based learning and letting them explore and progress at different paces. And then middle school, all of a sudden, it’s like this creeping fear coming down from college perhaps. So this essential experiences project is intended to be kind of an antidote to that. And it comes from having interviewed now hundreds of people and just saying, asking, what is the most positive, lasting memory you have from your middle school years. And we compiled all those answers and created 50 experiences that we just heard again, and again. And it’s everything from when I started keeping a journal. And I’ve kept a journal ever since. Two, I started a business when I was in middle school, and it got me excited. And now I’m an entrepreneur, or, you know, I became friends with my uncle who is 80 years old, and all of these different experiences. And the idea of it is kind of to ask what if that was the curriculum of middle school, we put them in categories, they range from things like how you develop more awareness of your identity to realizing what you can do in the world. So it’s intended to be playful, add to the list, take away from the list, challenge each other with it. Probably not best used by a parent telling a child to do one of these items. But I’ve seen it used really well, you know, in groups and advisories at schools, and after, after care settings, just a way to remember what’s really important and not get lost in the Math Worksheets. not to pick on that. But you know what I mean?

Debbie Reber  33:08

Yes, no, I think what struck me is that, especially as we have kids who are getting older, there are these lists of life skills, and your child should know how to do this and write a check and know how a food needs to be thrown in the trash. And there are all these kinds of things that we feel like we have to arm our kids with. And I read this list, and it just felt so refreshing. And that again, that it’s a list to check everything off. But just this reframe of what really matters, like what are the experiences that can really help shape who our kids are and how they see the world and feel respected and just confident and growing their abilities.

Chris Balme  33:44

Exactly. I think memory is a really good gatekeeper that we forget a lot of what happens in middle school classes, in particular, ask someone to tell you about their sixth grade English class, and it might be a stretch. But these experiences if it’s the kind of thing like I remember the time that I mediated a conflict between friends that might stick with you. Maybe that’s the bar. Is it worth remembering positively 20 or 30 years later?

Debbie Reber  34:10

Yeah, that’s great. I have a lot of memories right now that I’m going to hold back from sharing with all the tilt listeners. But yeah, definitely, as a way to kind of close out this conversation. Your book is full of so many great things to consider and think about as we’re navigating this, but if parents are listening, and they’ve got kids about to be in middle school, they’ve got middle school or high school students, and they’re really struggling with leaning into the magic of these years. What’s one thing you’d encourage them to think about as they leave listening to this episode?

Chris Balme  34:42

I think when your kids were younger, thinking of toddler years, if you didn’t understand them developmentally, it would be the weirdest, most bewildering thing ever. Why are they suddenly acting this way, are changing so dramatically. Like we depend on understanding those stages to make sense of it all and not go crazy. So I think my number one suggestion for middle school parents is to have that same view that we have to understand what’s going on developmentally. And in the book, I talk about these three kind of core developmental drives: the drive for authentic identity, for connection and for contribution. And if you can really see their actions in that light, and look for how they’re starting to work toward those, help them work toward those, then you’re helping them do their job, and think their behavior will make more sense. They will be more open to you. And I think it’ll be a better adventure.

Debbie Reber  35:36

Yeah, that’s great. I love that. Okay, Chris, this has been super fascinating. Again, I really enjoyed your book listeners, I encourage you to check it out. Again, it’s called Finding the magic in middle school. I’ll have links to that in the show notes page. But is there anywhere else on social media or elsewhere that you would encourage parents to check you out?

Chris Balme  35:55

Thank you. Yeah, you can find me on Instagram, just my name Chris Balme, or on my website,, and have a newsletter and some other things to look at there as well.

Debbie Reber  36:05

Awesome. Well, thank you. Congratulations on the book. super interesting. Thank you. For everything you shared today. This has been just a really interesting conversation and one that we really haven’t had on the show before. So I appreciate it.

Chris Balme  36:17

Thanks so much, Debbie. This was really fun, and I hope we can change the story back to our first point about what we think middle school really is. Thanks again.

Debbie Reber  36:27

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