The day will come when our kids will ask questions about our sordid past. How much do we tell them?
It could be anything, the question that stops you in your parental tracks.
A 5-year-old, his sweet voice filled with the kind of moral certainty that comes easy to a kindergartener, points out that smoking cigarettes is so bad and wrong: “Why would anyone ever smoke, Mommy?” Or your 10-year-old, noticing for the first time that you don’t seem happy to go on the annual holiday pilgrimage to see your parents: “Why do you hate Grandpa?” Or the languid, slumping teenager, angrily tossing it back at you after you grill him about whether there will be drinking at the party he’s about to go to: “Obviously you drank when you were 17. You are such a hypocrite!”
So what do you do? Do you evade, cling to the code of parental silence, change the subject? Or do you crumble, admit everything, overshare, lose your dignity as well as any leg up you might have on these frustrating offspring who seem to see right through you?
Most of us have done both.
When I was a teenager, experimenting with just about everything in my path, I was fortunate enough to have a father who leveled with me. He warned me about the drugs he’d seen do the most damage (alcohol and cocaine), and told me that pot was not a big deal but advised me never to drive stoned. He let me know that I could come to him without fear of punishment or censure.
I shared his stories, and mine, with my daughter. Not because I wanted to give up my parental authority, but because to me, being authentic and even vulnerable with my kids has always made them trust me more.
As with so many things, we can learn a lot from comedian Louis CK. In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, Louis described his teen pothead years, during which he was “barely cognizant of any kind of life; I never went to classes.” Now that his daughters are tweens, he told Gross, it’s a topic he thinks about a lot. There’s no way he would hide the truth of his youthful indiscretions, he said.
“My kids know that I did drugs. I think it’s important to share your mistakes with your kids—because you get knowledge from your mistakes and wisdom from it. If you can’t pass that on, what good are you?”
Still, it’s not easy to know how much to reveal, especially when kids are very little.
“I’ve been careful about sharing certain things,” says Marie of her 6-year-old son. “He doesn’t know that I ever smoked. He doesn’t know that I was treated for alcoholism, or that I did drugs.”
But smoking is one of those things young kids learn about. “He noticed people smoking on the street,” says Marie, “and he would see the no smoking sigh and he would say ‘no smoking!’” Still, if or when it comes up that Marie smoked for years before he was born, she says, “I would tell him the truth, but I definitely would have a lot of feelings about it. It would be the first big thing where I’m telling him to do one thing and I’ve done another entirely.”
For Jeanne Eschenberg Sager, the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, the issue that gives her pause is her own very young marriage. “I got married at 18,” she says, “and while I wouldn’t say I regret it, I struggle any time my daughter comes near the ‘how you and Daddy met’ story.” Sager, parenting editor at SheKnows.com, expects that one day her daughter may accuse her of hypocrisy. “I absolutely, 100 percent, without a doubt do not want my daughter getting married at 18! But it’s hard to tell a kid, ‘no, don’t do it, it doesn’t work,’ when you’re living, breathing proof that every once in awhile … it does.”
There are the things we did in our youth—smoking, drinking, shoplifting, or sleeping around—that we fear telling our kids about. But then there’s another category entirely: the hidden traumas and past pains, the horrible things that may have made us who we are, but that we wish our kids would never have to know about.
In Lisa’s* case, it’s sexual abuse, long buried and only remembered years later, at 38, when her kids were too young to be told about it. It took a long time, she says, to process the memories herself. She told her two daughters, then around 14 and 10, only after intensive therapy on her own. The telling, Lisa says, “isn’t just one conversation.” It unfolds over time, more detail added only as kids ask and are ready. “I’m going to tell you a little bit right now,” she recalls telling her kids, “not more than you can handle.”
“The ways that I’ve healed and gotten stronger are the things that I’ve channeled into my parenting,” she adds. “Honestly, the best way to parent, I think is just to be on top of my own stuff. What I’ve learned through it about how to be a human being, I bring into my parenting.”
Dr. Jessica Michaelson, an Austin-based psychologist who works exclusively with parents, agrees that parents with difficult pasts should be thoughtful in how they share their stories with their own children. Therapy can help a parent “come to an at-peace place with a variety of things, so that when it does come up, they feel grounded,” she says.
The general rule of thumb is to wait until a child asks, Michaelson says, and not to volunteer too much information too soon. “I’m not a proponent of parents just volunteering things for their own healing,” she adds. But, she adds, once parents have processed their own experiences, it’s very useful to share them with kids.
“One, I think it communicates that part of our responsibility to a well-lived life is to contend with what is real,” Michaelson says. “ Also, I do think that children, if the parent doesn’t show that they’ve grappled with things, that they’ve been vulnerable, that they’ve made mistakes, that they’ve had hard experiences—a child can very easily feel that all of their bad experiences are very particular to them and it’s something about their badness, that’s made something happen.”
Telling your kids about the not-so-great parts of your own childhood, she adds, “shows your child they’re not alone in these struggles. Regardless of how you are as a parent, your child is going to idealize you. So to see that it’s compatible that you could have had all these struggles, mistakes, and experiences, and still be good and worthy in their eyes, I think is a very good thing for them.”
For Marie, the truth is a potent antidote to the moralism she remembers from health class in high school. “To me, as a young teenager, it made those things seem more intriguing, because they were forbidden,” she says. “Absolutely, I’d like to avoid that.”
Jeanne agrees. Growing up in a family in which her parents claimed they never did anything bad as kids, she says, made her feel they couldn’t relate to her real life. “I want my daughter to really feel she can trust me and trust what I say to her,” she says. “So I’ll be open with her about my mistakes, but also about how life works—about the fact that yes, most people have sex before marriage, her parents included, most people try alcohol, and so on. I don’t ever want her to bypass talking to me about important things because she fears being judged by me.”
* Some names have been changed.
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