what’s the difference between teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers about dating and sexuality?

i addressed this question in a recent edition of slant33.com. click here to see two more good responses, from michelle lang and d. scott miller.

my response:

Full disclosure: I have taught on sex and dating to middle schoolers more times than I can count and have had even more conversations about sex and dating in middle school small groups. I have taught on sex and dating to college students once. I have taught on sex and dating to high school students approximately zero times.

It’s not that I’ve avoided the subject with high schoolers. I just don’t have many teaching opportunities with high schoolers (aside from speaking to them at large events, where sex and dating are never the topic). That’s because I have been hanging out in middle school ministry for thirty years.

But that disparity has given me plenty of opportunity to consider this particular Slant 33 question, especially since most advice and resources on sexuality in the youth ministry world are targeted to high schoolers. So I’ve spent a youth ministry lifetime modifying and filtering, adjusting and considering my audience.

Let’s start with what’s the same:

Sex (and dating) is a subject that cannot and should not be avoided. No matter how comfortable you are or aren’t, it’s pure irresponsibility as a youth worker to avoid this subject.

Wise and self-monitoring honesty is the best approach. Honesty is critical on this subject with so much misinformation, a subject that few adults are willing to be honest about with teenagers. But our honesty has to be tempered with wisdom (of what not to say) and self-monitoring.

Thanks to the dual, interconnected forces of the internet and a sex-obsessed culture, there’s not as much difference in how we should address this subject with middle schoolers as there was, say, twenty years ago. The primary differences could be summarized in two generalities:

Middle schoolers have less experience and less knowledge when it comes to sex. Even dating, to most middle schoolers, is a very different practice—for those who would say they have dated—than it is for their older brothers and sisters. As is true of so many factors in the teenage years, experience and understanding of sex and sexuality are a sliding scale (same with abstract thinking, worldview, independence, and a host of other issues). But, in general, most middle schoolers need conversations about what sex will be more than they need conversations about what it already is.

Middle schoolers are all over the board in their own sexual development. Sure, you could accurately say this about high schoolers too. But the plain fact is that 99% of high schoolers are post pubescent. When the subject of wet dreams comes up in my sixth-grade guys’ group, the majority of guys only have an idea (usually wrong, like “it’s when you pee in your sleep!”), and not actual experience. Of course, that personal experience, even for those eighth graders who have no interpersonal sexual experience, shifts dramatically as their sexuality awakens.

When I, as a middle school youth worker, combine the truths of the first two similarities with the second two differences, I’m left with this: When talking about sex with young teens, I am compelled by my calling to dive into—not avoid—honest conversations and teaching times but to do so with extreme sensitivity to age-appropriate developmental and experiential realities.

The best advice I ever received on the topic of teaching about sex and dating with teenagers came from Jim Hancock, co-author (with Kara Powell) of the exceptional youth ministry resource Good Sex 2.0. Jim says that, in his observation, youth workers often err in their approach to teaching about sex to teenagers in one of two extremes. Either they talk about sex as if it’s everything, or they talk about sex as if it’s nothing.

Sex is a big deal! It’s definitely not nothing. But it’s not everything. I’m committed—as awkward and uncomfortable as it might be at times—to teaching (and having conversations) in that tension.

9 thoughts on “what’s the difference between teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers about dating and sexuality?”

  1. I love that you ended this response with “tension”. Being willing to step into tension and the awkward is almost always the first step in middle school ministry. Thanks for keeping it real Marco.

  2. “Middle schoolers have less experience and less knowledge when it comes to sex.” – I would disagree with this statement – and argue that it depends on where your students are at. In the urban culture that we are situated in, an increasing number of our middle school students are becoming pregnant, dating, etc.

  3. Tanya, I agree that there are often contextual variations (hence the need to really know your context!). But, certainly, the average 7th grader (let alone a 6th grader) is less knowledgable an experienced than the average 11th grader.

  4. Hey Marko.

    No joke, JUST this past weekend, I spoke to middle school and high school students about dating and sex. And I’m with you man–we’ve GOT to be honest and speak to them where they’re at. What I’ve learned is the importance of being forthright without being gratuitous. Some kids (usually high schoolers) salivate when you say “sex” and some kids (usually young middle schoolers) want to cross their legs and run for cover. Hitting that medium while still being totally honest and Bible-based with students is tough, but from what I’ve seen is so worth the effort! I also always give parents a heads up on when we’re talking about sex/dating and even share my notes with them so they’re not at the mercy of their kids sharing what they heard. Thanks for posting this, Marko.

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