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It’s difficult talking to my kids about sex and consent, but it’s my job as a parent

I should have taken a few more minutes to compose myself before I began the after-school pick-up routine. I should have stopped reading about the young female athlete who was raped by her male teammates, as angry tears stung my eyes.

I am a sportswriter who focuses on race and gender, and a woman, one who believes survivors are telling the truth, and has worked front-line as a settlement counsellor on cases of domestic violence and rape. The misogyny in the world often lays me low.

But I'm also a mother of four vulnerable young people and I have to be strategic in how I approach hard discussions with them.

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I often have candid conversations with my kids about violence against women, self-protection and justice. I try to tailor these talks to their ages – ranging from 11 to 17 – and gender.

Teaching girls, including my own teenage daughter, not to get raped is not a solution to these problems. Teaching boys, including my own three sons, not to rape is a crucial goal.

Helping my boys unlearn toxic behaviours embedded by society and ripping apart rape culture is my job as a parent.

But so, too, is knowing – and supporting – my children.

That day, I was still upset by the graphic story I had read as my 17-year-old son jumped in the car after school. He greeted me cheerfully as he ate baby carrots and began telling me about his class in organic chem. Abruptly, I cut him off, launching into a conversation for which he was unprepared.

"You know that 'no' means 'no,' right?"

He stopped and stared at me, replying cautiously. "Uh, yeah … "

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I pressed on. "And if she is intoxicated and you are aware, this also means 'no' and if she can't reply, that means 'no.' "

"I know this, Mama," he said evenly.

"If she says 'yes' but changes her mind, it still means 'no!'" I continued. "If she's a friend, your girlfriend or your wife!"

Anger flashed across his face and he stopped eating.

"This is very important that you understand. I need to make sure you understand!" I said almost frantically. "I need to be certain there are no questions or misunderstandings on this issue.

"Also if you see someone who you think needs helps, trust your gut. Don't just sit there! HELP."

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My son, at his limit, blew up.

"MAMA, I KNOW THIS. I UNDERSTAND THIS," he said. "We talk about it in health class, at the beginning of every season, on every team and at every student conference."

His blunt question next shocked me. " Do you think I am okay with rape?" asked my child and, immediately, I was ashamed.

I brought my voice back under control. "I don't think that at all, but I need to make sure you get it," I said, more reasonably. "I have to make sure I do my part as a responsible parent."

We pulled into our driveway. My son grabbed his bags and slammed the door. I stayed in the car and cried.

That night, I approached my daughter, planning to speak to her calmly about her rights, her body and consent. She was on her iPad when I broached the subject much more carefully than I had with my son. "I'm good, fam!" she said, not lifting her head from Grey's Anatomy. I took this to mean she had already spoken about this with a trusted teacher, counsellor or coach and she did not want to talk about it with me. I gave her some space.

I knew I had handled things badly with my son and was relieved when he brought it up the next day. "Mama, I get it. But the way you said it was crap," he said. "Made it sound like I was guilty. Not to mention it's TOTALLY against everything in religion I practice."

I nodded and listened, as I should have the day before. My son takes great care to live as a young principled man with strong character. And he felt I didn't acknowledge that.

I told him that moving forward, I would try to do better. We had a good talk about why being a supportive ally is so important, why he needs to stand up, not just for me or his sister or grandmothers, but everyone, especially those most vulnerable.

Conversations about sex and consent are difficult and navigating them with four adolescents is a mess of trial and error. They're also, however, mandatory, so I'm thankful my children are patient with me. Now, I need to trust myself that I'm doing a good job.

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