Set the Stage to Talk With Your Kids About Sex When They Are Young (If You Want Them To Trust You)

06/22/2017 01:21 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2017

I am one of those rare kids who always knew she was loved by her parents. I generally trusted my mom and dad, my home felt safe, and I knew they would forgive me if I screwed-up (and oh, I did). I could talk with them about pretty much everything.

Everything but sex.

They told me the basics, did the necessary sex ed, and helped me work through my sexual morality. My dad would even be overly affectionate, blatantly telling me he was doing this so I wouldn't find love from "all the wrong places," or "all those boys, because every boy just wants your body."

I definitely didn't believe boys wanted my body. I secretly needed all the hugs. But I wished it felt normal and casual to talk about all things sexual long before I reached puberty. Because by the time that guy told me that I had “virgin ears,” licked his middle finger, and thrust it into my ear while saying the “F” word, I didn’t even consider asking my parents about it.

If you need a spectacular icebreaker, just ask people how their parents talked with them about sex.

I’m not a researcher, but even a fool would conclude that parents are notoriously bad at talking with their kids about sex. I really can’t complain because my parents actually tried to do a good job--my mom came out of a prim and private home and my dad was trying to take it down a notch from a rather too open home (if you catch my drift).

They were rockstars compared to the countless parents who didn't say anything, or worse, were downright neglectful when their children needed them most.

Setting the Stage for the “Big Performance” Might Not Mean What We Think

The stage needed to be set far before I would need it. In theater, yes, the director will be there to provide support during the performance. But the director also prepared for the Big Day in advance with rehearsals, costumes, sound and lights.

By the time the teenage years have dawned, the Big Day is long gone and we’re living repeat performances. Many parents misunderstand, thinking sex is the performance. However, we can really only be the directors of the unscripted, unromantic drama, Conversations About Sex.

The opening show might pass with little fanfare as we will likely be unaware. The Big Day is the essential moment of truth—the day our children decide whether it is too awkward to talk with us about sex or not.

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If You Don’t Set The Stage, Someone/Something Else Will

Even though my parents and I had a legitimately great relationship, I didn’t trust them when it came to sex—and by extension, dating. And although I gained so many benefits from my moral choices when it came to sex, I hated that it could become an excuse to not be open with me when I’d ask.

So instead I'd ask my friends or sometimes even my friend's parents "who were cool." Worse, I’d go to the internet before asking my own mom and dad. This might be one of the epitomes of dangerous, but that was before anyone taught internet safety. (Wait, what? Parents still don't teach internet safety?)

When To Slap A Boy and When to Set the Stage

Maybe it was superb fluke that I gathered some body safety from my parents, but I knew it would be okay to slap whomever might try to touch me. This proved useful once I hit the fourth grade, when I had to use this skill set more than once. (Those little boys in the gifted program were naughty!)

I was nine then, but there was an incident with another boy before that. None of which I told my parents about—the stage had already been set. This is one of the main reasons advocates, doctors and psychologists encourage parents to communicate with their children about sexual topics—like using the real names for their private parts—before it seems like a need. It gives kids the language and confidence they need to be open about what is going on rather than ashamed if something goes wrong (unfortunately, which statistically isn’t abnormal). Continual parental involvement, trust and awareness are also key factors in determining a child’s risk for exploitation through sex trafficking.

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The Confrontation With the Parents

For awhile I felt a little betrayed by my parents--if they did everything else right, couldn't they have gotten this right too? I was nineteen, and like any good daughter would, I confronted them when we were out at nice Chinese restaurant. I relished loudly flinging the word "sex" while interrogating, "Why didn't you tell me about ____ and _____! Why didn't you mention _____!"

I don't really remember how they responded besides wild gesticulating and "ssshhhhh!!!"  My guess is that all of their bandwidth was dedicated to begging me to "please keep it down!" (Sorry, mom and dad!)

You Don't Have To Lose Their Trust

Thankfully, I turned out okay and my parents have graciously realized that as I share my story, it might inspire a new generation of parents to build trust, and build it younger. Let’s aspire to have great performances that aren’t titled, “Awkward Sex Talks.”

We can be intentional about setting the stage with open, frequent, casual, unflustered, and clarifying conversations about all things vaguely sexual. Let’s remind our kids that there are no conversations that are off-limits, check in with them regularly to see if they have questions, always provide factual answers, and define vocabulary (even the scariest words, at the youngest age). We won’t overshare, but we won’t be stingy. We will build on what they already know, like how I did in Why I Told My Daughter About Periods In Target.

If you want to really want to build a foundation of trust with your kids and make your home a safe haven, set the stage when they are young to talk about sex without fear. The performance might already be happening.

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Elisa Johnston empowers ordinary people to make the difference they were born to make at Average Advocate, procrastinates on Instagram, and believes her online course, Conversations With Your Kids About Modern Slavery can change the world.

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