Knowing too much

I’ve been loving your comments recently, everyone.  Thank you for jumping in!

The other day, my friend Jairy left this comment on my post On Trust:

I was also a bit taken aback during our first class when I asked the group about what their concerns were about the class. I posed the idea that maybe they would be embarrassed to not know something. One brave teen replied with just the opposite. That they might know something that maybe they shouldn’t. I guess I was a bit naive in this regard, assuming that they didn’t have as much information as they already did. That really helped me to gauge where they really are. I have been very proud of them in their willingness to volunteer their understanding and ask questions to help clarify their understanding.

I really liked his point, because it brought out what I was looking to say about adolescent/adult relationships (that teenagers often want to appear innocent, and so adults often do not have a full picture of their sexual knowledge) and applied to another important relationship: friends and peers.

In a group of teenagers, young people often feel the need to show that they know enough about sex to appear cool and knowledgeable, but not so much that they come across as a slut or a show-off.  It’s a delicate walk, and one that is made more difficult when the youth come together in a classroom to learn about sex.  Now, they are suddenly placed in a situation where the teacher is trying to draw them out, to figure out how much sexual knowledge they actually have in order to target the classroom content appropriately, but they are often trying to not let anyone know exactly how much they know.  It’s a wobbly dance, particularly those first few classes.

To help move along the process of figuring out how much the kids know, while allowing them to save face, I generally have them do a number of anonymous assignments.  Writing anonymously seems to help ease them into the idea that eventualy they’ll be talking openly, an eventually they often do.  The need to slowly get comfortable talking about sex with each other is a primary reason why a sexuality class needs to be spread out over a period of time, ideallly months.  This holds true even (perhaps especially) if the group of youth already know each other – there is even more face to save when they already know everyone else than if they are all strangers.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Wow. Thanks for quoting me, Karen. I feel honored. I understand that wobbly dance you describe. There have been times when one of the teens was courageous enough to ask a question verbally and others in the class might laugh or snicker. We’ve made it a point to encourage the questions by reminding them that what they are asking is a good question and answering it seriously so that any embarrassment about asking is lessened if not removed.

    On a similar note about trust, I thought I had slipped the other day while answering a question from the box regarding performing oral sex on a male. I made the comment that I had to inquire with a close friend to find out the answer. One teen asked me if my friend was male or female and without thinking I answered that she is female. The same teen then said, “oh wow.” At first, I thought I shouldn’t be revealing that information. But then I thought, perhaps this sent a message that a plutonic friendship with someone of the opposite sex is not only possible, but very powerful if you are able to have conversations around sexual topics and not be shy, embarrassed, or feel judged with that person.

  2. Great post! You’ve really done a good job laying out a dynamic I hadn’t paid much attention to when talking with teens about sex. Now I’ll be on the look-out for it.

    One of the challenges that I’ve found when talking with teens is boredom on my part. At first, that might sound counter-intuitive, Karen. After all, our sexuality is so important to us that it might be hard to imagine someone could become bored with a discussion of it. But I’ve noticed time and again that when some teen starts talking about sex and relationships (as in “What do boys want?”, etc.) I’ve found it difficult to get enthusiastic about discussing the subject. I very much suspect that’s because of two things: First, I’ve been over the same subject so many times that I’ve lost my enthusiasm for it; and second, I’m not an expert on the subject so it kind of puts me on the defensive to be asked about it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt frustrated that I didn’t have a concise, insightful answer to some question I’ve been asked. Despite all that, I feel something of an obligation to the teens who ask me these questions. When they trust me enough to discuss their sexuality with me, I know I would feel bad putting them off. So, what to do?

    You spend all day talking with teens about their sexuality. How do you stay enthusiastic? Do you ever worry you’re sending the message that you’d rather be elsewhere? And should I be concerned about sending that message anyway?

  3. […] interested The other day the illustrious Paul Sunstone left the following comment on this post: One of the challenges that I’ve found when talking with teens is boredom on my part. At first, […]

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