It’s been a staple of sitcoms since the early days of TV. “The Talk.” That awkward and often humourous scene in which TV Mom or TV Dad sits TV Teenager down to discuss sex. It usually involves both parties being super uncomfortable. The adult begins the talk, the kid tells the adult they already know all about it, then the adult breathes a sigh of relief, the audience laughs, and it’s all wrapped up before the next commercial break.

This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so close to the truth for many families. My mom recalls her “Talk” consisting entirely of, “Blue side down,” referring to which side of the menstrual pad touched the underwear.

A few years ago, the Ontario government put a health curriculum in place to ensure that no kids slipped through the cracks. The current Ontario government has put that education at risk, making it that much more important for these talks to be happening at home.

Notice I said, “these talks.” The problem with having “The Talk” is that comprehensive sex education requires more than one sit down in the teen years – it is an ongoing discussion from toddlerhood.

Knowledge Is Power

My parents took what was a pretty unconventional approach in the 80s. They were open and honest with me from the beginning. I don’t recall ever not knowing where babies come from. I had an anatomy book mixed in with my picture books that showed each step of fetal development, and I studied it with fascination. My most rented movie from the video store was a cartoon detailing the facts of life with a kid-friendly approach. I knew the proper names for body parts, and I understood that my body autonomy was to be respected.

Then there is the oft-told story around my house of the time I was three and playing with the children of my aunt’s neighbour. Their mother had just had a baby. They excitedly told me how their mommy had Bradley by magic. My face grew grim, my mouth curled into a pout, and I informed them, with great disappointment, that, “My mommy had me by Caesarian.” Far less cool, but much more accurate. The neighbour, overhearing this, called me a filthy-mouthed brat and banned me from playing with her children. I think of this story often, and the shock those kids were in for when they discovered where Bradley really came from – hopefully before they accidentally ended up with a Bradley of their own.

Start Education Early

I am taking the same approach with my two boys. We have discussed sex as it comes up since before they could speak, starting with labelling body parts accurately. We bought a book about conception, pregnancy and body changes, and put it into regular rotation on the bookshelf with Dr. Seuss and Robert Munsch. That was a fun surprise for Grandma when she volunteered to read the bedtime story my oldest had chosen one night. Bless her heart, she read it verbatim.

When my oldest was three, he happily told anyone who would listen that babies are made with an egg and “Smurf.” (He says it correctly now.🙂) This weekend, we were watching “Look Who’s Talking” which includes a peek at sperm fertilizing an egg. My youngest, who is five, was quite interested to see what that looks like beyond diagrams in a book. Amazingly, having this information at a young age has not scarred them!

But it goes beyond making sure they know the mechanics. At ten, my oldest is starting puberty, and this open dialogue we have fostered allows him to ask questions about his changing body without too much reservation. Our hope is this will continue as sex becomes more than an abstract idea, but an actual decision they will need to make.

Consent Is Key

And it goes beyond sex itself. From toddlerhood, we have discussed consent. Now, we didn’t sit our one-year-olds down and tell them that they do not have the right to sexually assault people – but we taught them the concept of respecting other people’s bodily autonomy, and expecting their own to be respected. If they said ‘stop’ while being tickled, we stopped immediately, even if we knew they were kidding. We never insist they give hugs and kisses, to anyone. We also insist that they respect it when we don’t want to be touched. Our children have learned, and are continuing to learn, that if someone does not want to be touched in that moment, it is not a personal rejection of them, it is an expression of body agency, and must be respected always.

Calling Out Negative Messages & Behaviours

We point out problematic messages in the media. When we see things that contribute to rape culture or sexism, my husband and I call it out. Our ten-year-old has started noticing these things for himself and pointing them out. We are teaching them to not only respect and seek consent themselves, but to advocate for others and speak out when they see someone being violated.

Age-Appropriate Discussions

We have discussed sexual orientation, gender fluidity, adoption, surrogacy, IVF, different types of families, and countless other topics as they have come up. All of this before our children have hit middle school, and they are handling it just fine. Soon, we will introduce the subjects of birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and discussions surrounding having sex. The concept of bodily autonomy will transition to discussions about sexual consent, and the requirement of getting and giving an enthusiastic yes before engaging in sexual activity. We will discuss how to handle rejection. We will set clear expectations and we will enforce them.

Ongoing Dialogue

None of this will happen with one sit down talk. The seeds for these discussions were planted in toddlerhood, and have already begun to grow buds. We will keep watering them and pruning them until they are flourishing and able to stand on their own as tall, independent trees. This is true not just of sex, but all important subjects – drugs, smoking, peer pressure, bullying, etc.

Our kids deserve more than one hurried conversation, and so do their future partners.

Heather M. Jones is a writer in Toronto and mom to two young boys. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.