I’m having a parenting quandary. How do you allow children to stay innocent when the world we live in requires their eyes to be wide open? How do you let your kids set the timing and the tone of how they discover sex and sexuality, when the reality of your community requires you to share difficult, sometimes scary truths, before they may ready to hear them?

This is where I find myself. I want my children to grow up on their own schedules and I hope they take their time. Part of growing up is learning about sex; the biology, the mechanics, the consequences, and the impact it has on humans as whole. It’s a complicated, emotional subject.

In my 20s, I taught HIV/AIDS prevention education classes to thousands of people. To eighth-graders (some of whom had already become parents), to guys in the county lock-up, to folks in court-ordered rehab, to prim and proper church ladies. I always felt like when it came to talking to people about sex, I was someone who got it.

Then I had three children of my own and learned the hard way that their natural timeline for having comfortable conversations about sex, and my perception of when those things should happen, are not the same. And of course, once you get it figured out for one kid, the next one comes along and it’s a whole new ball game. But I knew one thing for certain, I would NEVER be one of those parents who indignantly pull their kids out of sex ed classes. Kids need to know! Knowledge is power!

At least, that’s what I thought.

My oldest child is in sixth grade. That’s the year before middle school in our school in Fairfax County (just outside of Washington, D.C. and where we live). It’s also the year that the “Family Life Education” (FLE) curriculum gets interesting. My older kids already know all the basic facts about sex. I initiate conversations periodically but if they don’t want to discuss it further, I don’t push. I have encouraged interest and curiosity about sex as being natural, but they flat out told me they weren’t ready to talk about it more.

I told them I respected their decision and used it as an opportunity to reinforce an idea that we’d touched on when we’d talked about good and bad touches and then later, healthy relationships. When it comes to sex (even just talking about it), you are always in charge of your own body.

I worried, though. Middle school is looming on the horizon. I know what can happen in middle school.But my husband and I held firm. We weren’t going to force them to talk about things that were clearly making them feel uncomfortable. They get to stay innocent about all that stuff as long as they want to. They get to set the timeline for when these conversations take place, not us. Once reached, that choice felt like the right one. After all, it will all happen soon enough.

At least, that’s what I thought.

Part of the sixth grade FLE curriculum this year includes a video, produced by the county, on teen sex trafficking. It came to my attention just a couple of weeks ago, and I realized that it would be shown, in part, to my daughter’s class. So I watched it.

I consider myself fairly hard-boiled and honestly, it was really hard for me to watch. It’s an unflinching look at a very serious, all-too-real problem. More than 800 girls of all different backgrounds, students in our wealthy, suburban school district, were targeted via social media by men who were later prosecuted. According to the data highlighted in the video, the average age of the girls who enter into trafficking is between 11-13. When I saw that, I almost threw up.

I thought about my daughter about to start middle school. I thought about my choice to let her guide the conversation about sex, letting her avoid certain things until she felt safe and comfortable talking about them. I thought about how she would be completely blindsided by the discussion of a girl in our town, not much older than her, being forced into sexual slavery. Being manipulated by men into thinking that she had no choice. That she would see images designed to catch her attention and honestly, to frighten her, about how she could be targeted.

I know that she is not ready to see that video. I also know that she has to learn about it this year. Neither of us wants to have this conversation, but we have to. Fixing this problem starts with having some hard conversations and we must do something. In a kinder world, no 11-year-old would have to hear about this because it would not exist. There would not be people seeking to exploit and profit from the innocence of children, nor would there be men willing to pay for it.

This situation terrifies me and I would really like to pretend that it’s not happening. But I can’t, because it’s real and it’s taking place at the mall where we go to buy my kids their school clothes. Where my friends let their daughters wander around with their buddies, knowing they’re safe and easily reached by cell phone. And starting this year, my daughter and her classmates will be learning all about it in FLE.

It’s absurd, isn’t it? That I’m an over-protective wreck freaking out about sheltering my daughter from a video. What shelter was there for those girls (and boys) in harm’s way? Who was there to protect them?

None of this is what I thought it would be.

My husband and I decided to talk to our daughter in advance of the video being shown in school and ask her what she wanted to do. Did she want to stay in class and see it? Did she want us to pull her out? Did she want to preview it at home? In any case, we let her know that we were going to have a talk about it, even if it was uncomfortable.

I’m struggling with how to protect my kids from all this, but also with how to protect their innocence from just how bad a place the world can be. So I’ll repeat the question I started with – how do you allow children to stay innocent when the world we live in requires their eyes to be wide open?

Watch the video for free here: “Tricked: Inside the World of Teen Sex Trafficking”

Resources to help kids at risk (from Fairfax County’s Trafficking Site):

The Polaris Project is an organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, conducts training and provides vital services to victims of trafficking.
Shared Hope International is a global leader in the fight against sex trafficking, providing prevention resources for teens, training for professionals, restorative care for survivors, research, and policy initiatives.
All We Want is Love: Liberation of Victims Everywhere fights trafficking through education, training, and rescue resources.
Federal Bureau of Investigation has a federal program to stop human trafficking.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of the primary federal agencies responsible for combating human trafficking.

Julianna W. Miner has three kids and lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She teaches Public Health at a college she couldn’t have gotten into because she made bad choices in high school. She writes the award-winning humor blog  Rants from Mommyland and spends too much time on the Facebook.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more advice, essays and news.

You might also be interested in:

The Joys of ‘Parenthood’

Is my son too nice to win?