This morning I was thinking about trust. About who has it, and who doesn’t. And what that means about innocence and knowledge.
Because I occasionally find myself in front of a group of young teenagers talking about this most intimate topic, promising I won’t tell their parents what they say, teenagers often confide in me or at least speak openly in front of me, in ways they say they do not usually do with adults. Here are some of the things I hear:
I hear that their parents don’t trust them. I hear that their teachers don’t trust them. I hear that this pains them deeply.
But I also hear that they do not trust their parents. I hear that they do not trust their teachers. And I hear that they assume this is just the way of the world with adults. (“Well, except you,” they are sometimes kind enough to note with a nod towards me.)
The long and short of this massive distrust and general pain that teenagers hold in their relationships with many adults in their lives is that they are unwilling to talk about sexual matters with them. This can result in the adults in their lives thinking they are far more innocent and unknowing than they actually are.
Sometimes, early on in our conversations, a young person will say something, and another will punch him or her in the shoulder and, nodding towards me say, “That’s SO inappropriate! You can’t say that!” The indication clearly being, they can’t say that in front of an adult. I smile and say as quickly as I can, “There is nothing inappropriate here.” They stare at me, “Really??” And often promptly try and shock the socks off me. This is where I really get to the meat of what they know about sex and what they have questions about.
These kids are not innocent. But nor do they really have knowledge. Rather, they are in is this world of pigeon-sex-speak that preteen and teenagers use. Words are tossed around in a terribly cavalier way – cunt, prostitute, pimp, dick – without any real knowledge of what they mean (but they make adults rise their eyebrows!) and giggles are plentiful. Few adults are invited into this world where teenagers use their extensive sexual vocabularies – and even fewer are asked to take part in deciphering the jumbled-nonsense-code that sexual words have become.
But why not? Why don’t teenagers invite adults, who they otherwise like and engage with, into their world of sexual (mis-)understanding? Why do parents and teachers, who otherwise feel that they know and understand a teenager’s level of development, massively mis-judge their sexual knowledge and/or experience?
Well, it’s tied up in social stigma, intergenerational conflict, and teenagers wanting their parents and teachers to think the best possible of them. All this means that teenagers are inclined to lie about their knowledge level, make themselves seem more innocent than they actually are.
Not long ago, I was giving a class to a group of young people. They were all engaged and on-topic and had something to share, both in terms of offering their prior knowledge to the group and asking questions to clarify their prior misunderstandings. Afterwards, I was talking with a parent whose child had been in that class. The parent said how pleased they were that their child had been there. Their child had given them a blow-by-blow of the class that was quite accurate, except that the child indicated that all of the information presented was new – nothing they had known before. I was pretty stunned, as the parent continued to thank me for presenting this new information to their child in a warm, engaging way for the first time. Based on the young person’s input during class, they were relatively knowledgeable in a slang-based, nervous kind of way. This parent is one who is often in deep conversation with her child, and feels she knows her child well.
So here’s the problem for parents and teachers: It is incredibly hard to know when a young person does not trust you with their complete sexual knowledge and experience. But just because a youth has not talked about a specific aspect of sexuality (or even stated their ignorance of it), does not by itself lend credence to the young person’s actual lack of knowledge.
To combat this problem work to see that the pre-teenagers and teenagers in your life have no reason not to trust you about sexuality – bring up the topic in conversation, be forthright, and spend a lot of your time listening closely to what your teenager has to say. Building that trust is the first step towards a truly open conversation where you’ll get the best possible understanding of the young person’s places of innocence and knowledge.