Telling Your Kids About Your Past
Jane Peters* of Miami, Fla., shares stories of her teen and young adult days with her friends. When she talks about these former "wild times," she alludes to drinking and experimenting with drugs and sex. These are stories that she has no intentions of ever sharing with her children.
Every parent has a "past" and behaviors they don't want to see their children repeat. It could be as serious as drinking and driving or shoplifting, or as personal as vegging out in front of the television after school. We set up our rules based on our own youthful actions: insisting on checking on them when they go to a friend's house (because we snuck off to parties); giving limited access to the car (because we had no regards for speed limits, stop signs or our parents' no-passenger rules); being strict about curfews and waiting up for them to come home (because we know what shape we were in when we snuck home after curfew).
Child experts say that setting rules makes kids feel loved and secure and less likely to get into trouble. Public service announcements pronounce parents "the anti-drug." It's all well and good until your teen looks you straight in the eye and asks you the question you've been dreading: "What did you do as a teenager?"
Do you confess your teenage crimes? Do you lie or avoid the subject? How much of your past does your child need to know?
"We do tell [our kids] about things to teach them not to make our mistake," says Belinda Mooney of Oklahoma City, Okla. "It's not casual information if [what we did was] wrong."
"It is important for us to be honest with our teenagers and admit that we made some decisions that put us in unsafe or otherwise compromising positions," says Lee Ann Grisolano, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College. "For most of us, to do otherwise would be hypocritical. However, we can be honest with our teens without full-fledged reminiscing about the 'glory days.' There is no reason to disclose every little detail of what we did and how and when we did it."
Peters agrees. "No matter how cool or experienced we are as parents, to our children, we are the role models, and for them to hear about their parents doing stupid, risky things is not something that I think helps them in finding their own path," she says.
Perhaps when the kids are adults – or parents – themselves, the time will be right to share some of your old stories. By then, they'll have reached a point where they'll understand (of course, you'll need to be prepared to hear their stories). However, research shows that during the teen years, the brain is going through its most rapid growth period since infancy. The part of the brain most affected by this growth spurt is the area that controls decision making and logic. It is why kids who seem so level-headed in most aspects of their lives end up making reckless decisions when they are with their friends.
Teenagers are ruled by their emotions. Telling stories of risky behaviors and indiscretions of your youth could end up giving your teens a reason to justify their own behavior ("Mom and Dad survived doing this, so I will, too.") instead of discouraging it. After all, children – even teenagers – consider their parents to be role models. If their role model decided it was all right to drink as long as they didn't drive while in high school, then it must be all right for them to do it as well.
No matter how much you decide to reveal, you still need to keep the communication lines open with your teen. Parents and teens should regularly sit down and talk about what are and are not acceptable behaviors. "These kinds of conversations with our teenagers can help to offset a lot of the animosity that can exist between parents and teens," says Grisolano. "These kinds of conversations give our teenagers a glimpse of us as normal human beings who understand what they are going through."
However, Grisolano thinks it's important for these disclosures to come from a concerned parent and not from a parent acting as a peer. "What is most important is to model responsible behavior to our children in the present time," she says.
"I think as boomer parents, we should keep in mind that the temptation to be cool and with-it doesn't make it OK to share those war stories of our own wild days," says Peters. "It can be tempting to talk about going to a concert, or a road trip or whatever to our teenagers. But I really believe that what we tell them goes in through the filter of that teenage immortality myth and that the parent who should be the rock in their lives isn't doing them any favors to reveal stupid or dangerous things done when we were young. In other words, stick to being boring, old, straight mom and dad!"
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.