Seriously Dad, You Once Did What?

The following is an article I wrote a couple of years ago. It discusses the pros and cons of parents revealing details from their pasts that they might not otherwise have shared. Teens can benefit from what you share, but be careful with what and how you do so.

You and your teen
Parenting and your past
Land Park News Family Columnist

Growing up, my father talked once in a while about his college days in Milwaukee. He helped pay his way through school by working at a brewery where the happy hours were free, started at break times, and continued after work. Were there times when he drank too much and rolled home in a particularly giddy mood? Probably, but in the end your guess is as good as mine.

I can remember wanting to ask more questions, particularly after I started bending and breaking rules as a teen. But I never did because of some sort of unspoken rule that it wasn’t OK to ask him such personal questions. The line was clear: parents were parents and kids were kids.

We all know that times have changed. Teens have 24-hour access to information, including as many juicy details as they can stomach. If they kept up-to-date on Tiger’s sexual escapades and can keep straight the details with the Kardashian sisters, then it’s not a leap for them to want to know all there is to know about their parents’ pasts. In fact, many teens believe that the Freedom of Information Act was written with them in mind.

Keep in mind that your teens are curious and want your guidance, and it’s your job to do your best to prepare them for adulthood and making responsible decisions. It’s appropriate to share information about your past, but you need to think about what and why you share. As you consider how to respond, there are several thoughts to keep in mind.

Be aware that we all have events from our past that feel uncomfortable or shameful. If you’re hesitant or not ready to answer their questions, by all means don’t. Tell your teens that they’re asking good questions, but you’re not going to answer them. Then hold firm and don’t give in to their persistent questioning.

It’s also important to answer only the question that’s asked. Anticipating and answering questions that haven’t been asked can have unintended consequences. If your daughter asks you if you ever knew anybody who got pregnant by accident, answer briefly and then wait patiently for her next question. If you get anxious and keep talking, you could blurt out information like, “Yeah, it happened to a friend and she dropped out of high school. I’m worried that this is going to happen to you, too.”

By making this assumption, you’d miss a valuable opportunity to help your daughter. Perhaps her concerns are really about her friend, and you’ve both drawn an incorrect conclusion and missed an opportunity to provide important information. And if she is pregnant, she’s going to need ongoing support, not negative predictions for her future.

Finally, be clear on why you’re answering questions. If you share personal information as a way of opening up a dialogue and teaching a lesson, do so carefully. However, if you’re answering and finding yourself enjoying the memories, rather than focusing on what you hope your teen will learn, stop. Your teens are asking because they’re curious and want to learn from your experiences. They’re really not interested in your “glory days.”

Looking back, I wonder if I might have made different choices had I known more about what my father did and the mistakes he made. I’ll never know, but I am aware that today’s parents have many opportunities to share valuable information and influence their teen’s choices. Just be clear on what and why you’re sharing.

2 Responses to Seriously Dad, You Once Did What?
  1. Caron Smith
    November 30, 2012 | 5:50 pm

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for writing about an important issue. “Tell your teens that they’re asking good questions, but you’re not going to answer them,” is a great suggestion. When I was young my parents would simply lie, that is, they would deny having had any experience with alcohol, sex etc., and that simply shut down any opportunities for learning.

    • Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel
      November 30, 2012 | 11:12 pm

      Thanks Caron for sharing! You raise good points. In the end, both too little sharing and too much sharing by parents can be harmful for kids. And it can be difficult for parents to know where that line is.

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