How forthright should parents be about their past transgressions with their children?

October 7, 2010
By

How forthright do you think parents should be about their past transgressions with their children? What about when a teenager or young adult is struggling with issues that a parent struggled with (word of wisdom, sexual immorality, etc.) is seeking empathy and guidance from a parent? Should the parent disclose what they’d been through for the purpose of helping the child? Would teenagers/young adults be mature enough to handle information about their parents without losing their trust and confidence in the parent(s)? Would telling them about past sins encourage bad behavior under the premise, “well my parents turned out okay, so I can do this too”?

These are excellent questions! My advice about “honesty being the best policy” regardless of the relationship in question holds firm even with our children. However, the level of honesty and detail shared should be adequate to the situation and age of the child. Here are some thoughts:

It is always fascinating to me to see how patterns of behavior tend to repeat generationally. It does not seem to matter whether the parents have tried to keep past sins or mistakes secret. An interesting case I will never forget is of a mother who came in to see me with her 15-year old pregnant teenager. With a little bit of digging we were able to establish that this had happened at the same age for four generations! None of the teens knew at the time of the prevalent family history. Unfortunately, the anxiety and worry (although well intentioned) associated with parenting can sometimes produce the opposite effect that we want. For instance, we might be so anxious and worried about premarital sex, that we unconsciously transmit messages to our children that drive them more towards this behavior than against it.

As far as HOW to share past experiences, you can start by saying “You know, when I was your age, I also struggled with staying chaste. I had all these feelings bottled up and I really liked this person I was dating. A lot of my friends were having sex and I was confused as to why it would be such a bad thing, etc., etc.” You can continue to share what challenges you faced, what situations you found yourself having a hard time in, how you overcame those issues over time, etc. You do not need to say “I had premarital sex.” This may be more than what you are willing to disclose, and you do not owe your child this level of very private and personal information. If they flat out ask, you can always respond by saying “I am not going to say yes or no to that question because it is very private. But I do want you to know that I struggled like you are struggling and, believe it or not, I know some of what you are going through right now.” Ultimately it is up to each parent to share what they are comfortable with and what feels right with each individual child.

It is important to respect your spouse’s/ex-spouse’s experiences and not disclose information about their pasts without their consent (especially when the child is underage). It is also important to communicate with your spouse what you plan to share from your own past so that you stay united as a parenting unit and they are not taken by surprise by a comment that a child makes in the future.

Having a moment of open honesty with your child, especially when it is a difficult topic, will always gain the respect of that child. I don’t know if you have noticed but adolescents and young adults seem to have a “hypocrisy radar” turned on at all times. They are highly dramatic and offended when they feel someone is being hypocritical or dishonest with them, especially since honesty and forthcomingness is usually expected of them.

This idea that being honest with our children about our past experiences will help them justify their own bad behaviors does not hold much clout. Kids will make mistakes regardless of what we tell them. It is a natural part of life. It is important as the parent who is sharing past mistakes to make sure and include the pain, regret and other consequences past sinful behavior caused. It is also important to communicate that the reason you are sharing these private things, are to educate in a way where the child can maybe avoid similar situations.

We may worry that our children will look at us as imperfect and lose respect once they know our weaknesses or past sins. However, I worry more that we set an unreachable expectation of what their lives are supposed to look like. If they believe their parents have never struggled, never sinned, never fought, etc., what hope do they have of being “good” members of the church if it means they have to achieve a perceived perfection? This can be very disheartening and feel unreachable.

Our adolescents and young adults are bright and clever people. They usually know more than what we are willing to give them credit for to begin with. You may come to find out that they were already aware of the “secret” you disclose. When we treat them in a way that elicits trust, it can go a long way in forging more open and intimate relationships in the long run. This is highly beneficial to all.

Although we hold grave and sacred responsibilities as parents, it is important to remember that our children start becoming responsible for their behavior on their own accord at a fairly young age. Therefore, we can’t fall into the guilt traps of “well, if I had just told her about my experience maybe that would have kept her from doing the same thing” as well as “I should never have told him anything: I knew he would follow suit!” The reality is that our children are going to fall. And they are going to hurt. Hopefully we can be part of the process of helping them get up and brush themselves off. Continued education on the atonement and what it provides to us on a daily basis is paramount in these types of discussions with our children.

As latter-day saints we have a unique understanding as to why we came to earth and the learning that is supposed to take place here. Therefore, I wish we could be more tolerant of the “falling process” with our children, instead of always just wanting to protect them from sin. If we want to follow Heavenly Father’s parenting example we need to remember that He lets us fall (regardless of the pain and anxiety it causes Him). The plan of complete protection and guaranteed salvation was actually Lucifer’s. Instead God educates, patiently chastises, allows for sin and provides a way out. He loves unconditionally. For we know that without pain there is no joy . I hope we as parents can follow suit.

MM readers:

What are your thoughts on this topic? Personal experiences?

Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist. She blogs at mormontherapist.blogspot.com.

12 Responses to How forthright should parents be about their past transgressions with their children?

  1. Justin Tungate
    October 7, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    “It is important as the parent who is sharing past mistakes to make sure and include the pain, regret and other consequences past sinful behavior caused.”

    I think that this really is key. I remember my dad telling me about all the fun he had playing practical jokes on teachers and whatnot in High School and in the same breath telling me that I would be in huge trouble if I did anything remotely like the things he did. And even though I never played any practical jokes (and have a natural distaste for them anyway) I had a really hard time sorting out my feelings about rebellion.

  2. nifty
    October 7, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    My mom, who was raised in an inactive family, told me during high school that she had been sexually active with her high school boyfriend growing up. She shared the information pretty matter-of-factly and didn’t seem to feel anything negative related to this. I figured if she could turn out active and happy, with a family, etc, then I could, too. It wasn’t long before I started relaxing a lot of my standards and then eventually was sexually active. I’ve often thought about this question – what will I tell my daughters? What if they ask me? And Justin (#1) pointed out the very sentence of this post that answered the question for me. My mom didn’t teach me anything in relating those tales from her youth (except to be responsible and protect myself…not sure why that was so much easier for her to teach me than spiritual/emotional side of it). She shared her story, helped me get birth control, and was my friend. But not a teacher. And so I think when the time comes for me to have these conversations with my girls as they get older, then I’ll teach what I know to be true. And if they ever ask directly, then, like Natasha suggests, I won’t lie. But I also won’t hide the parts of my history wherein I felt used, lonely, lost, and ultimately so full of regret because of my choices. Thanks for this post. Good food for thought for this formerly wayward soul. :)

  3. Jana H
    October 7, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Nifty, good thought I totally agree with here: “But I also won’t hide the parts of my history wherein I felt used, lonely, lost, and ultimately so full of regret because of my choices.”

    My sexual history will likely be discussed on some level, since my daughter is only slightly younger than my husband’s and my marriage. Now, my husband never made me feel those things I quoted, but he was not a member when we started dating and pre-marital sex was not an issue for him. I had just left my first sexual relationship (at the age of 26) in a completely emotionally broken state. I made some bad decisions and my husband and I started a sexual relationship only 3 weeks after we started dating, and continued that relationship until we were married, when I was 5 months pregnant. (I usually sheepishly point out I was engaged prior to my pregnancy, at least!)

    Anyway, I want to be clear, at the appropriate time, the pain and anguish that sex with someone who wasn’t my life partner caused me. The message I want to get across, of course, is that pre-marital sex should be avoided. But, I think the more important message is to communicate somehow the deep regret and physical revulsion I feel when I reflect on my poor decision-making. It haunts me, though I have long since repented and felt washed clean. I don’t feel like I need to re-repent or anything, it just cringe when I realize how out of whack were my priorities.

    I’m really glad to read this topic. Thanks!

  4. October 8, 2010 at 6:58 am

    Natasha, you raise some good points, especially that we inform our spouse of our intention to share, and that we respect the privacy of others and share our own experience only.

    I would also add that although in the long run our kids may respect us more, we should not be surprised if they attempt a short term gain by using the information in a moment of anger against us. Though our sharing may or may not directly affect their behavior, they may still claim to justify their poor choices with ours.

    This kind of sharing seems most successful when built on an already strong foundation of sharing and communication. If the first serious communication we have with an adolescent is sharing our past sins, that’s likely not to work.

    The other doctrinal issue I wonder about (and I haven’t resolved it in my own mind) is that when we truly repent, the Lord forgives us and forgets the sin. It’s easy for me to imagine that He is more likely to forget if we don’t remind him. I was always bugged by missionaries who seemed to enjoy chatting about their pre-mission transgressions, as if they hadn’t given them up. I don’t necessarily believe that sharing our prior mistakes in an effort to teach our children is the same (Alma the Younger talked with his sons about his great breakthrough to repentance, for instance), but it is not the same only if we make it not the same.

    A final question (in my long comment, sorry) — you suggest that NOT telling may not keep generationally repeated mistakes from happening. Is there evidence that telling might prevent them? Or is the benefit in helping our children cope with the mistakes once they have made them. If the latter, then is the best time for the sharing after a mistake has been made rather than as a prevention? (Ok, I guess that was more than one question…)

  5. species373
    October 8, 2010 at 7:54 am

    I see this question in the same light as to how church members see General Authorities at large. With one side of our mouths we admit fallibility of prophets and while denying with the other side of our mouth denying that they ever did anything wrong. How many members have fallen away because they felt lied to when they discover the mistakes? I think pretending to be perfect leads to accusations of hypocrisy from teenagers.

    Our kids are under so much pressure to perform and “be ye perfect”. I think sharing stories of mistakes are just as healthy as the rewards of decisions well made. That is not saying to build a confessional booth and tell every sordid detail, but share at appropriate times and places.

  6. Henry
    October 8, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Play it by ear. It may be the right thing to do in come cases but not in others.

  7. Dave P.
    October 8, 2010 at 10:12 am

    I think this is a very good idea. One of the most common teenage mannerisms is “You just don’t understand me!” because teens often make mistakes and feel like no one knows what they’re going through. Parents had their own teenage years and likely made many of the same mistakes, and being open about those past experiences and consequences definitely shows that “Yes, I actually do understand you in this regard.”

    Contrast this with stories from parents who always portray themselves as having never made mistakes in their experiences or just tell stories that never have any point. Those get old very fast and no one wants to talk to people like that.

  8. Quixotequest
    October 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    It’s reminds me of a subject like whether we should indulge or shield our children from movies like with war, violence, indulgent sex, unpleasantness, etc.: I don’t think we should focus on it but it should not be avoided if the ‘unpleasant’ content shows an honest portrayal of the consequences of destructive behavior. It’s part of being human to try to aspire above the muck of much of our reality. I’m also not going to go around broadcasting my mistakes to them, but I would disclose them openly and contextually with my kids when needed, especially to help give them a honest picture of what I’ve learned and experienced when they are experiencing or apt to experience.

    On an aside: It’s that whole bit of the Bible being descriptive but not always prescriptive of unsavory stories and behaviors contained therein. Check out Robert Crumb’s illustrated Genesis for a terrific visual example of grappling with this reality of scripture — he’s not even a believer and he’s already more honest (I believe) to the text by doing what he’s done than many of the sanitized approaches believers take.

    And because it’s important to me, I’d emphasize the difference of correcting behavior in order to set oneself right with the community, family, friends to which they have (or want to have) a relationship. That’s different than being right with God. They can be right with God merely by turning with a new heart (repent) and trusting in His righteousness, not their own effort to measure up. That takes care of “sin” and “transgression” completely. Setting things right with those with whom they want to have a trusting, healthy relationship means correcting, healing, reconciling, etc. But what I don’t ever want to do, where sin and mistakes are concerned, is ever teach that they get right by God by having their “repentance” mediated between whatever relationship they have with us, their friends, or to religious community. (That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in relationships of honest accountability even within church community, just that I avoid granting too great a role to any mediating hierarchical method of ecclesiology.)

  9. October 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Paul
    I don’t have any research to prove either case. The only things I have been able to find supported by studies that, IMO, relates to this issue are that anxiety and rigidity do not help parenting skills. It is my theory that the underlying anxiety we have towards our children repeating mistakes that is somehow communicated (even nonverbally) and that then takes effect.
    Communication after all is largely nonverbal anyway.

  10. October 9, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Interesting point re: rigidity. I know I have been far less rigid with my younger kids than my older ones. And my folks were with me, too, compared with my older brother. In the case of my siblings, I think we didn’t have big issues that church parents worry about, but I know my own kids faced far bigger issues in their lives, and it took quite a bit of work on me to learn to give up the control I thought I had (control I really didn’t have anyway).

    I was intrigued by the story that Elder Lawrence told in conference about not letting his son go on a weekend trip with friends. It was not because of some rule (family or otherwise), but it was because of the feeling that the parents had, and the son respected that answer. I was really impressed that it was a specific response to a specific situation rather than adherence to an arbitrary family law. I wish I had been able to speak in those terms with more of my kids while they were at home.

  11. Doug
    October 12, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I would say to leave whatever is buried in the past there. For example, I smoked pot as a teenager but I’d be dismayed if my kids and/or grandkids did same. My prior stupidity doesn’t constitute justification to be likewise stupid for the next generation. Therefore, I wont readily disclose that little tidbit. The experiences of my “flaming youth” do serve to keep me street-wise and not naive as to the pitfalls that the youngsters may fall into.
    However, in some cases the misdeeds of long-ago are all too evident. For example, if the eldest child can do fundemental arithmetic, and her birth date is somewhat less than nine months from her parents wedding date, endless rants from her mother about the law of chastity might fall upon deaf ears…

    (“E” from the Incredibles,2004)…”I never look back, dahling, it distracts from the now!”

  12. BoundforGlory
    March 23, 2013 at 12:26 am

    It’s a very sticky situation. I will tell my sons when they enter the Y next year to CTR, but that our Savior still loves us even if we have premarital sex with many, many of the coed sisters at the Y, as I did when I attended.