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Telling your children about your sordid past
Kids pay attention to what parents say and what they do … and what they did!
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
I had a pretty wild past as a teenager, and I’d rather keep my kids out of my footsteps. Should I be open with my kids about my past?
Some believe that kids pay attention to what parents do, not what they say. In truth, kids pay attention to what parents say and what they do … and what they did!
That’s why it can be dangerous to share details of our sordid pasts. Children look up to their parents. If mom or dad was an athlete, the kids often want to be one, too. And if either parent recounts the wild times they had binge drinking, drag racing, or passing out at parties, kids will want that experience, as well.
Some will argue that kids are going to do bad things anyway, so you might as well be honest about your misdeeds. But even if kids are destined to do bad things, it’s better for them to know you believe those things to be bad. This helps kids consider their actions, even if only in the aftermath. That’s partly how conscience is developed.
Development is impeded, however, when the child knows at some point in your life you were guilty of surrendering to bad impulses. If Dad confesses that he cheated his way through college, there’s a good chance that the child will think this is an acceptable course of action. And if the child has already developed a strong sense of right and wrong, your confession can actually cause him to lose confidence in your character, making it less likely he’ll listen to your wisdom in the future. Either outcome is detrimental.
Another concern: manipulative teens will throw your confessions back in your face to neutralize attempts to hold them accountable. Imagine grounding your daughter for missing curfew, then hearing, “Well, YOU used to sneak out and stay out all night! At least I don’t do that!” That technique is effective against parents with guilty consciences.
While kids may use your past antics to justify their present actions, many parents use their own past actions to justify their kids’ present antics. This results in zero generational growth. I’ve sat in on dozens of conferences where parents shrug and say things like, “I did that, too, when I was in school, and I turned out okay.”
Did you, though? Your old flings aren’t the benchmark for good character. You might do better by setting the expectations for your children a bit higher.
Despite what it sounds like, I’m not advocating for burning the scrolls and pretending your indiscretions never happened. That can turn out badly, too. Berating your kids for sins you know full well you committed with impunity can sour them with the rancor of hypocrisy.
What to do, then? Be open about having made mistakes but avoid specifics. Admit you’re not perfect and did things you’re not proud of. Kids don’t need to know what those things are. They just need to know that you’ve experienced the same pressures and fallen in similar ways. Also, emphasize the redemptive nature of your experiences. Let them know you learned from your mistakes and are a better person for it.
As you and your children get older, you can reveal more details as the situation applies. Say you catch your son sneaking in drunk. It could be meaningful at that point to talk with him about your similar experience and how you grew from it.
When your kids challenge your authority to punish them for misdeeds that you were guilty of too, a good answer is that you would have been much better off if you had been caught and punished because it would have given you a better chance to learn that what you were doing was wrong.
Ideally, you are a different person than the one who had such wild misadventures. If you want your children to also grow into stronger, wiser versions of their present selves, focus on who you want them to become, not on who you once were.
Read original column here.