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.
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.