"What Do I Tell My Kids When They Ask Me About My Past"
Whatever you tell them, beware of the "Happily Ever After" syndrome
Jaunary 10, 2009


I had a lovely dinner last night with five really wonderful women.

The women were all mothers who belong to a book club, and they invited me over to discuss the new book I’m writing, which will be very much like my book Real Love, but geared toward answering parents’ and educators’ questions.

What I wanted from these women were their specific questions.  After twenty-plus years of giving talks to parents, I have a pretty good idea what is on their minds.  But in Real Love I used actual questions from actual teens, and I want to do the same in this book.  And so these lovely women invited me to spend an evening chatting with them.

It was a really nice discussion.  They had a lot of questions – and a lot of insights – on a wide range of chastity-related topics.  But a majority of the evening was spent discussing the one questions that strikes dread in the hearts of parents everywhere:  “What do I say when my children ask me about my past?”

I can see where it would be scary.  Parents pride themselves on maintaining honest relationships with their kids.  They want those kids to make better decisions than they did.  So should they share information about the mistakes they made and the consequences of those mistakes, hoping that their children will benefit from the information?  Or does that make them hypocrites, expecting their children to live up to a standard that they themselves failed?

I usually answer the question with another question:  When you were a teenager, did you ever ask your parents about their pre-marital sex lives?  The answer is usually a horrified “Oh no – I would have never dreamed of asking them a question like that.”

Why wouldn’t you ask your parents?  Because it’s a personal question.   Because the subject dwells in the land on the other side of The Divide Between Parents and Kids that none dared breach in my day. 

Maybe there is something to be learned here.

I know parents today want to be closer to their kids, and that’s not a bad thing.  But there need to be limits.  And those limits include information about their parents’ sex lives.

Why? Because sex is private.  It’s sacred.  Parents have a certain right to privacy in their own relationship.  It shouldn’t be a big open book that the entire family can peruse at will.

Some parents think it’s better to share their own personal mistakes with their kids.  They figure they’ll explain how those mistakes hurt them, the consequences they lived as a result, and their kids can benefit from the experience and not make the same mistakes. 

Here’s the problem with that picture.  Kids aren’t like we are.  Their cognitive processing is much more concrete.  They aren’t as likely to “get” abstract concepts or descriptions.  They are much more impressed by what they see now than they are by stories of things that happened long ago.   You can describe your past suffering in exquisite detail.  And yet, what does your child see?  Probably a relatively attractive, relatively financially successful parent who seems overall to be doing fine.  And they think, “I can do what Mom did and it’ll all turn out okay in the end.”

I call it the Happily Ever After Syndrome.  And it’s very, very dangerous.

Of course, there are situations where a parent has to explain past mistakes.  A birthday that doesn’t line up with a wedding anniversary.  A half-sibling.  Any public, obvious or easily-discovered information obviously needs to be dealt with.  In that case, parents need to do the best they can.  If a child was born as a result of the “”mistake”, and especially when talking to that child, affirm his or her worth and make sure he or she understands that mistake was the circumstances or the timing, not the child.  Emphasize the hardships and how they would have been alleviated if the timing or circumstances had been different.  And then affirm the child again.  And again.  And again. 

Aside from that, I strongly recommend that parents strive to create and environment where children understand that there is a certain sphere of privacy around their parents’ marriage – not because there’s anything bad about it, but because of the sacredness of their intimacy.

The next logical question is about hypocrisy.  Am I a hypocrite if I expect my children to live up to a standard that I failed myself?  No.  The definition of a hypocrite is someone who advocates one thing while doing the opposite.  In other words, you would be a hypocrite if you expected your children to live chastity while you were living unchastely in your own personal life.  That’s very different from having made mistakes, having lived the consequences and not wanting your children to face those same consequences.

Look, the goal here is more than just to keep your teenagers from having sex.  It is to instill in them a sense of the beauty, the meaning and the sacredness of marital sexual union. 

Don’t just tell them about it.  Live it.


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