Well written piece in the blog Mormon Matters:
How forthright should parents be with their children about past transgressions? – Natasha Helfer Parker
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’s always interesting what goes through the mind of young parents regarding their view of their own times of hot blood, rebellion and experimentation which may make them blush at the idea their children might ever learn those secrets.
Although not ashamed nor embarrassed by the quality of my own fathering of my children, I remember starting out being terrified that the children would learn about what I was really like as a teen and young adult – even what I did on my mission that made me blush – and what I did afterwards as I grew older with presumably more maturity.
I entered the sacred bonds of matrimony fortified by my returned-missionary-ness and True-to-the-faith attitude that would surely help me do my part to prove that my youthful generation of Zion would not falter.
As time passed and my five children got older and wanted answers to more serious questions, it became obvious that I could not self-present as a former young adult, whose youthful bathwater was always drinkable – as I might have been one of those Sons of Helaman marching or the self-righteous Nephi type they were reading about in Seminary classes.
So I shared what I believed was age appropriate confessions of how I felt and what I thought I was like when I was their age.
I felt safe telling them about how at age 3 I was lured into a shed behind our house by our 4-year old female neighbor to play doctor … and how when mom opened the door to the shed, I was bent over with my pants down, bum in the air waiting to get a shot.
My mother was laughing so hard she forgot to spank me.
I felt safe telling them about friends paying me and a female friend a penny to kiss each other when we were 6.
I felt safe telling them about how at 7 I and two other kids my age burned down a neighbor’s garage.
I felt safe telling them about my brother and I stealing vegetables from neighbors gardens when we were out at night in our tiny home town.
When they got older more humanized stories became appropriate so they would not ever confuse me with George Washington, Joseph Smith or Spencer W. Kimball.
I shared what it was like the first time I kissed a girl.
… the time my cousin took me across the tracks to an old turkey barn where we smoked our first cigarette and then how I went home at 11:00 o’clock in the morning to brush my teeth. (My mother did not by my explanation for why I decided to practice good dental hygiene in the middle of the day.)
As they grew older, I felt more honestly bolder.
I actually confessed to stealing cigarettes from my grandfather’s pool hall cause I had no money to buy any and now that I was fully addicted to tobacco I had to take desperate measures.
Although when the time came to express my father’s concerns for my daughters and son as a man who was once a red-blooded, hot-blooded male, I limited it to a confession and explanation about how I felt, what I thought about most of the time, and what it was like to attempt discipline and self-control in our cultural context as Mormons.
There was no need for detailed blow-by-blow fumbling around in the back seats of cars or behind the church during and after MIA.
I especially felt safe telling them I was arrested once for stealing pumpkins from an Albertsons in Pocatello on Halloween when I was a Freshman at ISU.
I was able to comfortably define the repentance that was necessary before I could receive a mission call.
Which included … well I don’t remember confessing to the high school smoking and drinking until they were well into their teens, but then today I am older with selective short-term memory loss and could have spilled the beans to them earlier than I remember.
Although I didn’t talk much about what I was doing in my role as a provider by serving in the military because of the nature of those duties … it was interesting how years later I felt safe in loosening up my lips without endangering national security
… and in sharing what I felt I could share in a personal as well as historical Cold War context and why I took a degree in Russian Studies, I may have inadvertently enhanced the portrait of their father’s life and experience.
Whether or not such was a movement in a more positive direction iis something at which I can only guess.
When things don’t work out in families, I don’t think parents would want to have presented a personal bio so censored and edited that they make of themselves two-dimensional images – even stick figures that look more like the persons stuck on Mormon flannel boards in Primary.
If the children grow up aware of the human-ness and flawed-ness of their parents in an honest way, it becomes more difficult during the teen years when parents are so often seen as rigid, inflexible, judgmental and out of touch with reality and out of touch with their children who are following a natural semi-rebel path from immaturity to maturity.
Oh … and now that they are adults, there are lots of stories I shared and still share with them about my human disaster events – most of which we laugh and joke about now.