Kids are egocentric and so far as they’re concerned, your old life died with their birth but as they age, they can become more curious. They want to hear stories about the family and knowing family history strengthens their sense of self and being a part of something larger. But just how much, especially with this parental generation’s use of recreational drugs and casual sex, should you actually reveal about yourself? Because somewhere in that adolescent brain, your past activity will be viewed as a tacit approval for dangerous or unacceptable behavior.
This was brought home by one of my kid’s questions last week: Dad, were you a playah? When I’m surprised – and I really was at this one – I always try to determine what’s prompting the question. Why would you think that I was? The subsequent exchange revealed that it was rooted in an earlier conversation between my boy and his best friend, who’s akin to an adoptive son as well. In the course of family conversations about dating, I’ve been frank that I was raised with the attitude of "date ’em all". I’ve also been clear as they aged that dating isn’t synonymous with sleeping with said dates. But this part has been selectively forgotten and now I had to go back and clarify things again.
I’m fortunate that my past is pretty clear. I was the guy who got more than one woman out of trouble in college by assuring that she was removed from a situation before there were even greater regrets and I was typically "the brother figure" to many women. I reiterated this to the teen but he kept hammering on the question of being a "playah" and it occurred to me that the other part of the question pertained to virginity. I resisted the question further but as we went back and forth, I began to fear that failure to respond in this age of "friends with benefits" would be tantamount to confirming that I was sexually active as an early teen. The mental compromise was simple. Because you won’t stop, all I’ll say is that I was much older than you are. His response was dramatic, demanding to know why I’d tell him that and that he didn’t want to know. I’d cracked the box and given him a glimpse of a father as a man before his children came into the world.
How you answer questions about your past is your choice. I know people who have lied to their children about their past and I even have a family history of forebears lying about an out-of-wedlock birth. I also know those who have been open about their experiences and accepted the discomfort that comes with acknowledging past behaviors. Whichever route you select, remember certain things.
- Kids want to look up to their fathers and respect them, unlike what’s depicted on television and in the media, so always consider what you choose to reveal about your past behaviors and habits. I didn’t know until I was an adult that if my own father were my son, I’d have had him shot.
- Expect to spend time out of your comfort zone when talking with the kids about issues, especially when it pertains to sexual behavior. This is conversation that you must have since they won’t receive any moral perspective discussing it amongst their peers.
- Always offer a moral perspective to any conversation that you have with the kids. It isn’t just about being religious, it’s helping them build a framework through which they can make the value judgments which are part of life.
- Always offer a practical assessment of the risks that can arise from situations. Teens have a notoriously bad ability to assess risk and considering potential consequences with them can be instructive for both of you.
Since then, I’ve reiterated with my son that I won’t provide answers to specific questions since it’s none of his business. And he’s learned that if you don’t think that you’re going to like the answer, perhaps you shouldn’t ask the question.