“So Mom, when did you lose your virginity?”
“What kind of drugs did you do Dad?”
“How many times did you do it?”
Kids have always said the darnedest things, but these days they’re also asking embarrassing and frank questions about their parents’ past lives: “How old were you when you took your first drink?” “Did you and dad hook up before you were married?” “What do you mean you didn’t inhale?”
Their questions shouldn’t come as any big shock. After all, this is the Facebook Generation where kids routinely post each and every vivid detail of their personal lives and have been exposed to sordid R-rated indiscretions and national scandals of celebrities and politicians from such young ages. So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise when your kid asks about your past dalliances with drugs, drinking, and sex.
Which poses the real question: “Have you thought about how you’ll answer your teen?”
First off, do know that every parent is going to have a different take on this. But also know that you have absolutely no obligation to tell your kid your past history. What you tell-or choose not to tell is totally up to your discretion. This is whole issue is so new there is no research on the topic.
What the research is clear on is one thing: Our kids learn honesty as well as dishonesty mostly from us. So my only big rule on however you choose to answer is this: “Never—ever–lie or deceive thy child.” Doing so only breaks down trust with your child and sends a very wrong message: “It’s okay to lie.” Make no mistake: If your kid ever learns that you lied, he will always wonder if he can trust you again.
So, feel free to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (just please do take into consideration your child’s age and the state of your relationship with your kid). But there are also ways that you don’t have to answer your child’s question directly and still not be deceptive. All I want you to do is “be prepared.”
Here are three options to answer any kid question that you don’t want to answer without lying:
1. Take the Fifth. “I’m sorry that’s part of my private life.” Or “I just don’t feel comfortable talking about that now. Maybe when you’re older.” Enough.
2. Use the Abridged Version. You don’t have to give all the facts and still can tell the truth. “Yes I drank.” Or “Yes I had sex.” But leave out all the gory details. Take into account his age, developmental level, maturity, how important it really is for him to know all those details and what you choose to share.
3. Postpone the Talk. In some instances it is just fine to tell your kid “Let me think about it. And I’ll get back to you later.” “This isn’t a good time to talk—I’m rushed. Can we do this when we can really have time?” It’s a stall tactic and gives you time to think through what you want to say.
There are no take backs so whenever in doubt, it’s always best to err on the more cautious side. You can always tell more tomorrow.
There also are times when you should fess up and tell your child about your past life—despite the embarrassment or chance it may ruin your image with your child.
Here are five tests to help you weigh how much information your kid really needs to know about any topic:
1. Headline Test: Whenever something about your past is going to make the town paper or The New York Times (be it a drug bust or a prostitute ring), tell. You’re giving your kid a “heads up” before he hears it elsewhere and it’s best to hear the truth coming straight from you.
2. Impact Test: If your child’s life—now or in the future–will be adversely impacted, tell. You don’t have to tell all, but you do have to explain what’s going on because chances are your kid will catch on. Maybe your child is illegitimate and thinks his step-dad is really his father. Tell!
3. Medical Test: You owe your teen—when he’s ready—to know any part of your past history that could endanger his health (such as an alcohol addiction, depression, an eating disorder or a sexual transmittable disease). When there is a genetic component your child needs to know because his own health may be at stake.
4. Trust Test: Your teen knows you lied about your past and might even have found your little black book. So now weigh which is more important: Admitting the truth or further breaking the trust with your child. Probably best to fess up. In the end your relationship is always more important.
5. Lesson Test: Some parents feel it’s important to use their own past mistakes (they had sex too early; or drank too heavily and then flunked out of school) as a lesson. They don’t want the same thing to happen to their kid. Whatever you share do, plainly explain your position so your child understands where you were coming from at the time. Also, be prepared that the lesson approach could backfire and your kid’s idyllic view of you is gone.
One other little point: Don’t think your kid can’t handle the truth. When push comes to shove, kids are remarkably resilient and can handle much more than we give them credit for.
Whatever and how much you choose to tell your child, always explain your current family rules and your values. The best antidote for drugs, drinking, smoking, premarital sex and engaging in risky behavior is not what you tell your child about your past but being a “hands-on” parent today. Translation: A parent who monitors what their kids do and consume, sets clear rules based on your values, and has a healthy and respectful relationship. There is NO substitute.