Alright, parents of tweens and young teens, I’m going to let some of you in on something.

I recently spoke with a woman who raised five kids, and her youngest went to college this year. She’s seen it all.

I was telling her about some of the struggles my kids had seen at middle school — social pressures, sexual innuendo at every turn, bullying, discussions about drugs and alcohol, group texts that went off the rails, etc.

I asked how she talked to her kids about these things, how did she get through to them when they acted embarrassed and didn’t want to discuss these issues.

And she said something that I thought was profound. “Whatever you think your kid knows about a topic, add twenty percent.”

“What?” I responded.

“We all think our kids are naïve. We all think our kids haven’t been exposed to certain things. We all think that when we talk to our kids about something, they tell us the truth. But they don’t. In fact, they can’t. I mean, who really wants to talk about this stuff with their Mom? So, whatever you think they know about a topic, assume they know twenty percent more, and start there.”

And she’s right. Whether we want to admit it or not, our children are exposed to so much more through other kids than we can ever grasp — and they are putting it all together.

So, although they don’t have a grasp of sex, they may have an idea of what 69 is because other kids giggle when they hear that number.

Or, they may not share their personal feelings with you yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a crush.

Or, even though they know the dangers of smoking and would never try it, that doesn’t mean they haven’t seen the latest e-cigarette and heard that “it’s not as bad as real cigarettes.”

Or, while you may never swear at home, that doesn’t mean your kid isn’t experimenting with some colorful language while out in the world.

Add twenty percent. To everything. Even if you can’t fathom it.

This is important stuff. We can’t go around thinking our kids are naïve. We can’t go around thinking they don’t understand. We can’t stop ourselves from having important conversations because we don’t believe they are ready.

Every bit of research regarding how to reduce risky behavior in teens points to one thing: adults who have regular conversations with kids about said behaviors.

Demystify sex. Be honest about drugs and alcohol. Talk about the legal implications of sexting. Discuss how to have a healthy romantic relationship. Learn about the dangers of vaping and juuling.

Share your views, but be open to theirs. Talk about lifelong implications but don’t threaten recourse for every misstep. Provide insight into mistakes you made and how it impacted your life.

Add twenty percent more than you are comfortable discussing with your kids, because that’s what they know.

I’m not saying it’s not going to be hard, but that’s when the magic happens, right? 

Your kids know twenty percent more than you think. And if you don’t believe me, find out for yourself. I was surprised when I tackled a few topics.

I know we all want to keep our kids little, but unfortunately because everyone parents differently, this gets tough in middle school.

You have two choices: you can talk to your kids about this stuff, or they can learn it from their friends.

It’s up to you to decide what information you want your kid to digest.

Start talking to your kids, and then add twenty percent.

What you get back in return will be worth so much more.

This article originally appeared on Playdates on Fridays


Whitney Fleming

Whitney is a mom of three teen daughters, a communications consultant, and blogger. She tries to dispel the myth of being a typical suburban mom although she is often driving her minivan to soccer practices and attending PTA meetings. She writes about parenting, relationships, and w(h)ine on her blog Playdates on Fridays.