Parents Sharing Past Moral Failings With Kids

How much do my children need to know about my past? I'm a strong Christian and a dedicated parent, but during adolescence and young adulthood there was a time when I chose to "walk on the wild side." Is there any reason to be completely open with them about the moral failings of my early life?

We’re glad you framed the question that way. Need is one of two pivotal concepts you’ll want to keep in mind as you seek a satisfactory solution to this problem. As a general rule, we’re of the opinion that “less is more” in a case like this, but everything depends on the temperament, personality and maturity of your kids, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and the circumstances occasioning any discussion of this delicate subject. You’re looking at a potential mine-field, but it can be negotiated safely and successfully if you allow yourself to be guided by one all-important consideration: What’s in the best interest of the child?

Why do we say this? Because a parent in your position faces twin dangers, both of which arise out of the temptation to place your own needs, feelings and concerns ahead of those of your kids. On the one hand, we all derive a certain pleasure from sharing our “war stories” with the younger generation. Even under the best of circumstances this kind of reminiscing can be less than helpful, and in the worst case it has the potential to degenerate into an unhealthy form of boasting. On the other hand, feelings of shame or fears of unintentionally “condoning” bad behavior can inhibit you from making a timely revelation of necessary information – information that could save an adolescent’s life. You need to be able to discern the difference and stick to the middle path.

That leads us to the second of our two pivotal concepts: motivation. If you find yourself speaking at length about your youthful misadventures, it’s crucial to stop and ask yourself why. Could it be that you take a certain perverse pride and pleasure in portraying yourself as a rakish, devil-may-care teenager? Again, if you’re hesitant to be candid about your personal failings, is it possible that you’re holding back out of fear or pride? As we’ve already indicated, the key in either instance is to put thoughts of self aside. Let your words and actions be guided purely by a desire to give your children the best guidance possible – the guidance they really need for the situation at hand.

Bottom line: truthfulness is essential and transparency is critical. But the detail and specificity of your confession has to be dictated by a number of complex and interrelated factors. We’ve already mentioned the age and maturity of the child. To this we should add the child’s motivation. Is he requesting that you reveal personal data – as in, “Did you smoke pot when you were in high school?” or “Did you and Dad have sex before marriage?” If not, you need to ask yourself if there’s any good reason to volunteer this information. If he is trying to elicit the facts about your past history, how is your narrative likely be used? If it’s a case of a hostile and rebellious teen stockpiling ammunition to be used against the authority figures in his life, you should obviously proceed with caution.

On the other hand, if you sense that your child is sincerely reaching out for empathy and guidance in the midst of a personal battle with temptation, it can’t hurt to respond by revealing a bit of your own human weakness (with appropriate reservation, of course). As a matter of fact, this can be an unparalleled teaching opportunity – a chance to share valuable real-life wisdom drawn from real-life experience. This is the time to say – with humility – “I fell into that trap when I was a kid, and here’s why I don’t want you to make the same mistake.” In the process of bringing your personal failings out into the open, you can show a struggling or fallen teen exactly what it means to correct course and redeem the errors of the past through faith in the grace of Christ. This will add credibility to your warnings and impact your child’s future in ways you can’t possibly predict.

We have a staff of trained, licensed Christian counselors here at Focus on the Family who would love to discuss these ideas with you at greater length if you would be willing to give us a call. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified family counselors practicing in your area.


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