Dear Dr. Wes & Samantha: My husband and I have a new baby and are discussing certain parenting do’s and don’ts. One thing that keeps coming up is what we should tell our kid about our pasts. For example, should we admit to him that we have tried marijuana? Is it hypocritical to tell him not to do things we did? I say I’ll flat lie to him about it, if asked, but my husband disagrees.
Samantha: I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, you don’t want to say, “don’t smoke pot” and feel like a total hypocrite. On the other, you don’t want your son to use your use of pot as an excuse for him using pot. I think talking to your kids about your past is like baking a soufflé: It’s all about the timing.
Set the standards for your kids about drugs and alcohol early, and explain your mistakes later. Here’s a basic outline of ages when they might be ready to discuss these things. Remember, you should be discussing these issues consistently, not just once they reach key ages. They’ll find out information about drugs and alcohol anyway, so it’s better for them to hear it from you.
Age 5. Explain why alcohol is a drink that only Mommy and Daddy can drink. Tell them about the law, and explain that the laws were made because kids’ minds are still developing, and drinking alcohol will hurt their growth. Also explain to them that they are not allowed to take medicine without asking you because it could hurt them.
Age 8. Bring up smoking. Tell them about what cigarettes can do to their bodies, and explain the concept of addiction.
Age 10. Discuss more serious drugs.
12 and up. Ask questions about what other kids are doing and if they have been offered anything. Tell them you disapprove of alcohol and drugs, but if they have any questions, you’re happy to answer them, and if they get in trouble, they should still feel free to call you for help. Let them know that there will be consequences for their actions, but that you care more about their safety than punishing them.
All ages. Teach them how to say no. Other parents may not have taught their children the same lessons. Let them know it’s their jobs to know better.
If they don’t ask a specific question, don’t tell them anything about your personal history. They probably aren’t ready to hear it. Don’t worry, they’ll prod you like toothpicks into the soufflé when they’re ready. Then you can divulge information that is appropriate for their age. If you have not stressed the repercussions of something yet, don’t tell your kids you did it. Later you can say, “I made a big mistake.” Your kids will probably disapprove of your actions, but that’s exactly how you want them to react. They may ask why you didn’t tell them the full story when they were younger. Explain that it was an issue of maturity, and you wanted to make sure they were ready to hear it.
Wes: Superb advice from Samantha. We always stress doing what you want your kids to do; being how you want them to be. Telling them is little more than a bunch of words if you don’t act out those beliefs. Luckily, your history is exactly that: history. It’s a story you tell (or don’t tell) about the way things were for you. Your past mistakes are far less important in how your child will develop solid character and values than how you conduct yourself in the present. If you still like to hit the bong now and then, or close down the bar on a Friday, don’t expect your son to see any problem with doing that himself. It won’t matter how often you point out that he is a child and you are an adult. If you see your drug use as an indiscretion of youth — and one you regret — you MAY at some point want to share the worst aspects of substance abuse. If you think it was super-fun, I think I’d leave that out of the discussion for many years to come. Better to say, “When I was a child I thought as a child. Now I’m the parent and my job is to send you down the best path I can.”
You’ve hit on one of the most overrated problems of parenting: fear of hypocrisy. Too many parents think back to their own adolescence and realize all the dumb things they did. Then they either panic and try to lock their kids in their rooms until they’re 21 or give up and say, “I lived through it, he can too” and let their kids do as they will. This leaves us with kids who rebel against unreasonable authority versus those whose parents are too intimidated to step up and remember a simple fact: They aren’t kids any more.
Being a parent means doing parent things, just as being a kid means doing kid things. Kids get in trouble and parents dish out the consequences. In this biz we call it hierarchy. As long as you remain in charge and offer your kids a solid authoritative parenting style based on a good relationship, you’ll be fine.
John Mellencamp said, “17 has turned 35, I’m surprised that we’re still livin’. If we’ve done any wrong, I’m hopin’ that we’re forgiven.” Don’t drag your kid mistakes into the present. Just focus on how smart you are now and how much you can help your son be smart too — and leave the past behind. Someday he’ll need forgiveness too. For now, he just needs you to get him pointed in the right direction.
Next week: Should I stay with my parents for Christmas? A college freshman asks for advice.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.