How Honest With Kids?

A Mother’s day article a few weeks back posed an interesting question: 

Some months back, I was invited to a party with 20 or so other mothers. … a few of the women began reminiscing about their own youths, comparing the transgressions they’d committed in their teens and 20s and debating whose were the most egregious. … As we pursue the goal of protecting our children from some of our more boneheaded and/or high-risk antics, we face one of the essential dilemmas of parenting: What do children need to know about their parents’ pasts, and when do they need to know it? …

So, should you admit to your child what you’ve done? … If you cop to something, anything, will this give your children tacit permission to try it all? Remarkably few — if any — researchers have explored this topic. … So it’s odd, really, that there is no consensus on what to do when one of the million little interchanges involves the question of whether the parent is — oh, say — familiar with the taste of strawberry-flavored rolling paper. Experts, exploring their own gut instincts, differ. …

And let’s face it: Parents lie to their children all the time, offering up many comfortable fictions. When we read them fairy tales, we are, in a sense, lying. When we lead them to believe every story has a happy ending, we are lying. Our culture puts so much emphasis on frankness and sharing that it’s easy to forget the real uses of evasion and stalling and deftly changing the subject, which are social skills on which civilizations — and, sometimes, families — rely.  Because the truth can be harsh and destructive, and why force it upon them?

So how honest should parents be with their kids about their younger "indiscretions"?

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  • You could view lying to kids about your past as another way to give them ideals to live up to.

    I just finished watching the movie Hogfather, based on the Terry Pratchett book. There’s a speech at the end (by Death) that’s semi-appropriate.

    As with all the clips I encode, the volume it too low. Turn it up.

  • I think that some of the problems children have are because they feel they cannot live up to their parents’ and other adults’ ideals. They think, “look at how kind, responsible, self-sacrificing, etc. my parents are. Why am I not like that?”. Of course, their parents are really so perfect, but they don’t let their kids see it. In my opinion, a better lesson is to show your kids that everyone has their faults, but you try to overcome them to do something better, but you will fail sometimes and that’s okay so long as you keep trying to be better.

    As for the age at which to be honest with them, I think that will naturally fall in the pre-teen years. Up until then most children, even when they get mad with their parents, still idealize them naturally, so I don’t think it would be appropriate to reveal too much too young since they might get the wrong model.

  • I think the more honest, the better. I think kids will respond better to an honest explanation of how the parent learned from the mistakes the parent made and why the parent believes the kid does not want to do the same. I believe the kids will respond better to that than to some blanket command not to do something sandwiched between lies.

  • Not to mention the whole thing about teaching kids “don’t lie don’t lie don’t lie, you lied to me you’re grounded” yada yada yada, but then turning around as soon as it’s a tad uncomfortable to tell the truth and lying to them without even thinking.

    ie, there does, to me, seem to also be a basic question of fairness/ethics here.

    Interestingly enough, while I’m not a parent, more than one parent, when I’ve pointed this out to them, did seem to agree, do a “oh yeah…” sort of thing. Suggesting that the habitual lies above don’t even necessarally stem from deep consideration of the issue so much as the lies being easy, and them not even taking the to think about it.

    Michael: Yes, I’m familiar with that, but I don’t really buy it. Besides, on the Disc, believing in false things can actually, directly, make them true. So the situation is a tad different…

  • poke

    My parents told me all the stuff they used to do. I don’t think it altered my choices much. I certainly didn’t take it as tacit permission to try it.

  • So far as I know, my parents never lied to me, and I try to follow the same policy. On the other hand, I don’t believe my children are entitled to be told everything about my life or actions, just as I don’t think other people are. There is a considerable difference between saying things that are untrue and failing to say some things that are true, and that’s where I generally draw the line both for children and for adults.

    Off hand, I can not think of any information I have withheld from my children for fear that they might take my past as a license for their future–for one thing, I feel free to concede my faults and advise them not to imitate them. But I do think I am entitled to privacy. If one of my children knocks at the bedroom door, for instance, when my wife and I are making love, I don’t think I have any obligation to make it clear just why I’m not immediately available.

  • I’m in the 100% honest camp. I don’t hide things from anyone I care about, so why on earth would I hide them from those that I care about most?

    Note: not a parent yet.

    There is something to be said for age appropriate revelations, but once a child is old enough to ask a question, I strongly believe that it’s right to give them a full and honest answer to that question.

  • I would tell my kids everything I did, but there would be a long, deadly silence after the first thirty seconds.

    Is anyone else thinking about the old Loving Spoonful song, “Younger Generation”? (Something like “Meet my girl friend/She’s only three/She has her own videophone and is taking LSD”?)