Parenting is hard. I mean, I wouldn’t know from experience or anything, but considering how many plants I’ve killed (never through neglect — always through over-nurturing) I can only imagine how difficult it is to raise a human being. Hell, it’s hard enough just being one! And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Parents are just former kids themselves, with more in common with their own children than either might care to admit. No parent is a fully-formed monolith. But at what point should a parent let their child peek behind the curtain and see their human side? How much should a parent share with their child, especially when it comes to their own past? How honest is too honest?
That’s the root of this week’s question — but the specifics show that there is no single easy answer. Luckily the Overlords are chock full of people who have been kids and have had parents, and even some who, unlike me, have their own kids now. So we had a lot of thoughts on this one, and none of them involve fire or bear traps. If you’re looking for a funny edition of Ask Pajiba, I’m sorry to say you won’t find that here this week. But if you’re ready to get real for a few minutes, then strap the fuck in, friends — because shit’s about to get uncomfortably honest around here.
Is it ever appropriate to use mistakes from your own life as a teaching tool when talking to your children? For example, I have a pre-teen son. We are at the age where we are beginning to have conversations about not doing drugs. I have personal experience with this that my child doesn’t know about: I was addicted to opiates for many years in the past, and have been enrolled in a methadone maintenance program for several years. I have not used heroin or prescription opiates for several years, but I am tied to this methadone clinic, and a lot of my decisions about vacations, travel, and work are based on the fact that I need to be able to get my medication. My past addiction caused a lot of financial problems and led to me, my husband, and our child living in my parents’ basement for the first few years of my child’s life while we paid off debt and tried to put our life back in order. I have firsthand experience with withdrawal and my body is still suffering the effects of past drug addiction, and the effects of the methadone. My addiction led to me dropping out of university and not being able to get or hold a good, high-paying job. Things are much better now, but my past seems like the perfect cautionary tale to tell my child. I want to be able to tell him, firsthand, the horrible results of using hard drugs, because so much of the drug education kids receive in schools is vague as to the negative consequences, is based on the morality of drug use, and does not adequately warn about the physical, emotional, and financial effects. But I worry that he will become resentful, lose respect for me, or be upset and filled with pity thinking about my past. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to emotionally support me, check in with me about how I’m feeling physically, or worry about a relapse.
I also think about parents who have been the victim of domestic violence. Do you use that story and life experience to warn your children? What about parents who have a sexually transmitted disease, HIV/AIDS, or Hepatitis C from being careless with unprotected sex or sharing needles? Parents who have been to jail or prison for stupid crimes they committed as a teenager or young adult? Mothers who have had to get an abortion when they were teenagers or young adults as a result of an unexpected pregnancy? Do we share these stories with our children so that they do not go around thinking that consequences are things that only happen to other people, not people they know, and not themselves? Would it help to prevent our kids making the same mistakes we did if we told them? Or would they just view us as weak, stupid people, no longer worthy of respect, no longer seen as knowing best, and would they throw these things back in our face during arguments?
Dear Cautionary Tale,
First off, let me just say that it’s great that you’re already trying to think of how to prepare your child for the realities you’ve faced. And no matter what, your experiences will make you uniquely capable to help your child in the future. Even without sharing your past, you will be able to recognize warning signs or behavioral cues in your child that other parents might miss. So already you are in a position to use your past to help your child if they are starting down your familiar path, without having to say a thing.
But look, I’m always a big proponent of honesty… within reason. On a very top level, in your case, it would be useful for your child to know that there is a history of addiction in the family, as that alone may shape their approach to experimentation in the future. And I can tell you, coming from a household with parents who were very honest about their own youthful, ah, experiments, it helped me to know that they wouldn’t judge me. That, in fact, I could be as honest with them as they’d already been with me. In some ways, I had the safety net of knowing there was (almost) nothing I could try or do that they weren’t already familiar with. It didn’t make me think less of them, it made me respect them all the more for doing all that and still turning into the wonderful parents I know and love.
However, that honesty came when I was older, and it came in stages. And it also came because of who I was as a child. They knew I wasn’t likely to experiment with hard drugs, and I certainly wasn’t in danger of many other things either. I was an incredibly boring kid. So hearing about the wilder days of my parent’s lives was, in retrospect, a way to show me that I could loosen up and still be all right. So I think that you should start off by thinking about who your child is as an individual. Do they need to be scared straight, so to speak? Do you see worrying behaviors that you want to warn them against now? Are you worried because they remind you of who you were at that age, or might they already be walking a different path? And are they old enough to even handle the truth, and to contextualize what you’re telling them?
There was another question we received a while back, about a parent trying to prepare their foster child for the reality of everyday racism. And as TK so brilliantly answered then, it’s not a single conversation. It’s a series of conversations, tailored to how much truth the child can handle at that point, and how much will even be useful to them at that age. In your case, this may be a lesson you unfold over many years and not something to drop on the shoulders of a pre-teen in its entirety. And you may find that you never need to tell them all of it. It may be enough to let them know that you’re familiar with addiction, you’ve seen the impact it can have on a life, and teach the lessons without divulging all of your personal history — or at least not right this second. You can even take them to clinics, or to counselors, or find other ways of exposing your child to the realities of addiction without having it all come from you. Again, your experience isn’t just a story you have to tell, it’s a perspective you can bring to bear on your parenting technique in many different ways. Looking back, what lessons do you think would have made a difference to you, at that age? And how much reality could you have handled?
Several Overlords believe that sheltering your child is the safer bet — that not exposing them may protect them in the long run. But for some kids that backfires, and they don’t have the tools to navigate a side of the world they were never introduced to in the first place. On the other hand, over-exposure runs the risk of … well, introducing them to that side of the world they might never have needed to know about, really. They might not be the kid who was ever going to have unprotected sex, or break the law — so does telling them too soon show them that they can try those things and turn out OK?
Emily raised a really great point when we all discussed this question (of course she did — she’s a smart cookie). She said: “The reason drug addiction is dangerous is because it happens in secrecy and denial. Dispelling that is the best way to reduce the harm associated with it.” But there is a difference between dispelling the secrecy and sharing all of the graphic details, and that’s the line you should find for yourself. Part of assessing how much honesty your child can handle is to look at what they need from you. How they need to view you at that moment. If they are younger, they need to trust their parent to take care of them. So I can understand your fear of sharing too much and having them lose respect, but I’d say turn that on its head and wait to share when the information will make them respect you MORE. There will come a time when they’ll admire the journey you took to where you are now, and how much you’ve done for them. They’ll admire your strength, not pity or reject your past. But that day may not be today.
To me, honesty is a two-way street, and the greatest purpose it serves is to show the child that they, too, can come to you with anything. The thing to remember is for all the problems you’re familiar with, your child may be facing other challenges that you haven’t experienced. So perhaps these conversations don’t need to be just about addiction, but the process of showing your child that they can overcome anything. That mistakes happen, but no matter what mistakes they make you’ll always be there to help them get through it. That you’re both human, and everything you’ve gone through brought you to this moment — when you can help them on their own path.
Ok, that was a lot but I hope it was helpful! I don’t know about you all, but I could use a little release after all that. Luckily Petr came to the rescue, with this little bonus story from nature that shows that some parents maybe give a little TOO much of themselves to their young:
From parenting to spiders, if you have any questions you’d like the Overlords to tackle, email them to [email protected]. We might even take them as seriously as this one! But we make no promises …
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