Question of the Week: Should I Tell My Child about What I Did in High School?

Posted June 29, 2009 by

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Full disclosure: I was a rebellious teenager. I broke curfew frequently, yelled at my poor mom, and was generally surly and rude. (And oh, how I wish I could take it all back! I’ve apologized to my mom many times, but I would seriously love a time machine so I could go back and do my teen years all over again!) I was so sure, back then, that I was in control and knew what I was doing.

Boy, was I wrong.

The ol’ rock tumbler of life has a way of smoothing out those rough spots eventually, though.  After a few years on my own, I learned quickly that I didn’t know everything and that maybe Mom and Dad were right about some things. By the time I was in my twenties, “some things” changed to “a lot of things,” and by the time I had my son, I was asking my mom, “How did you ever put up with me when I was a teenager?” (My mom’s answer? An emphatic, “Well, it wasn’t easy!”)

I was so rebellious, in fact, that in my twenties, parents in my hometown started coming up to me and telling me that I’d given them hope that their own kids would turn out OK. (My mom taught in the local public school. I’m guessing I was an example in many a parent-teacher conference.) It was humbling, but I have to say that it served me right.

So the question has become, do we tell our kids the truth about our rebellious years? Or varnish it a little?

My husband, the Catholic Schoolboy rebel, has one unequivocal response? “Lie.”

“Absolutely we should lie!” he says. “Otherwise, we won’t have a leg to stand on when Alex gets to high school and starts dealing with peer pressure.”

Friends of mine have come down on both sides of the fence. Some say, “No, I’m going to tell my kids the truth, but talk to them about making good choices at parties or when they’re with their friends.” And others are in the, “No-way-would-I-ever-tell-them-what-I-got-up-to-in-high-school!-That’s-just-asking-for-trouble!” camp.

As for me, I haven’t decided yet — and luckily, we have a few years before my son will start asking those difficult questions.

So I’m curious: what do you think parents should do in this situation? Come clean, or stretch the truth? And what have you told your kids?

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. mehmfrench Report

    I too was wild! I have been an open book to my children & I have explained to them how I am lucky I am alive. I want them to know that I know what teens go through & that if you are going to follow the crowd to just be smart about it. It is my opinion that too many parents forget how they were growing up & then try to portray that they were sweet & innocent or try to rectify their wrongs & be overbearing. Coming from one who had overbearing parents…I rebelled more!! I have a 19 year old & he does not party. He devotes his time to his guitar & soccer. He also knows that I trust him until he proves me wrong…which so far…he has not! Is this the right approach…I don’t know. But it has worked for us!!

    Reply
  2. Unkl Moose Report

    Upon reading most of the other comments I see one common thread. “I was wild in high school”. Hey we all go through it. It is a right of passage so to speak. We’ve all stepped up to eage and looked over. In my case I stayed at the edge for a little while. I am an old hippie, dead head type and I do look the part. I have shared with both of my teens who i am and the history that goes with it. However, I don’t go into details. I tell them about Woodstock but not exactly what happened there. The result is don’t hide your history thats who you are; and let them make their own history with your guidence.

    Reply
  3. brooke Report

    Dear Ms. Wilkins:

    Thank you for always throwing out such thought provoking articles. My children are little, so I have used stories about my childhood when I felt left out, or was bullied, to make them feel better. Its interesting to look ahead and think about just how much you want to disclose. I think selective sharing is the best way.

    Reply
  4. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Dear Imbrookesmom: Thanks for your comment. I can see how you might feel a little caught in the middle here!

    I’m wondering if you’ve ever told your sister what your niece says about feeling pressured to live up to her legend? Maybe your sister would be willing to tone down the PR blitz a little if she knew. I understand that she might not want to go into great detail about her past, but I also think it’s important for kids to know that adults are not perfect, either, and that everyone makes mistakes.

    While I don’t think it’s a good idea to “out” your sister to your niece, perhaps you can at least let your niece know that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s a normal part of growing up.

    Reply
  5. Imbrookesmom Report

    I believe certain issues can be discussed with your child.

    My niece hears from her mother how she never made a mistake in her life, and how great of child she was. My sister has instructed my mother to make sure that she does not talk about the things my sister had done wrong. Even though I know my sister made many mistakes while she was a child, and caused more problems than I did while growing up, my niece has no clue. However, when I am with my niece, she expresses how pressured she feels because she has to deal with living up to her mothers legend. She feels that she has to be perfect, and it weighs on her every day. When a child feels that they have perfection to live it up, it may result in the opposite result.

    So again I think some things are good to tell your child. Let them know that you are not perfect, and you were a teenager once also.

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  6. 3kidsmom Report

    NO WAY WOULD I TELL MY KIDS WHAT I DID IN HIGH SCHOOL. FIRST OF ALL THEY CAN COME UP WITH THEIR OWN IDEAS, THEY DON’T NEED MINE TOO. I ALSO REALISE AT THEIR AGE THEY ARE NOT CAPABLE OF LEARNING FROM MY MISTAKES. IT WOULD TAKE AN AWFULLY MATURE TEENAGER TO GET THAT CONCEPT AND IF THEY ARE THAT MATURE THEY ARE MATURE ENOUGH TO STAY OUT OF TROUBLE ANYWAYS. iF THEY ASK ABOUT SPECIFIC THINGS I MIGHT TELL THEM THE TRUTH AND EXPLAIN WHY I WOULD DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY BUT I WOULD NEVER JUST OFFER IT UP. THE POSSIBILITY THAT A LOSS OF RESPECT AS A PARENT AND THE FALSE IMPRESSION THAT I AM A FRIEND IS TOO LIKELY. wE CAN BE FRIENDS WHEN THEY ARE ADULTS, RIGHT NOW I HAVE THE RESPONSIBILTY OF TEACHING THEM TO MAKE GOOD CHOICES ON THERE OWN.

    Reply
  7. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    To Arbonnelady, Kitty, JourneyMom and Ann Marie: Thanks for sharing your hard-won (and wise) advice. I keep reminding myself of the research that says that an adolescent’s brain doesn’t fully develop until they are around 22. (It was definitely true in my case! 🙂 ) I have a hunch that giving our kids more information than they need about our past experiences may actually induce them to try out all the hare-brained things we did — and then some! P.S. Kitty, I really like your method of asking questions to your children. I’m going to use that! Thanks.

    Reply
  8. Heart to Heart! Report

    I am so impressed with everyone’s responses! As a certified life coach who specializes in family issues, I see a lot of wisdom in the idea of selective sharing and asking questions, instead of just “spilling the beans” and hoping that our children will learn from our mistakes. I also love the idea of allowing others to share their experiences and life lessons with our kids (both good and bad) with our kids, thereby allowing us to escape the “well you did it and turned out OK” rebuttal. I think the collective wisdom of parents is awesome, and the responses here just prove my point!

    Reply
  9. kitty Report

    I watched my sister tell her children about her childhood and decided to NOT tell my children everthing about mine. Instead I asked them some questions…”Lets pretend that I was this wonderful child that never did anything wrong…Do you want to live up to that?” Now…let pretend that is was into drugs, drinking, sex…etc “do you want to live up to that?” “This is about your life…who you are…where you are going and will end up!” This isn’t about me. Lets both be sure…I’ve experienced enough to know when you are doing things you shouldn’t and I know enough about life experiences that I would encourage ALL people to think things forward. I always ask my children and friends that come to me…How will this affect you next week, next year….etc!?
    This really impacted my daughters and I would hear them asking their friends the same questions!

    Reply
  10. Ann Marie Report

    I think we need to keep some secrets. My daughter has developed a way of thinking of me that I desire her to think of me in this way. I have so much changed my own life since being married and having her, I feel no need to disturb the image she has of me. She thinks I am a book nerd (which I am) and too conservative (which I can be). She has fallen somewhere in the middle without getting into trouble. She is mulling things over in her own mind, and has made good friends. She heads off to college this fall and I hope my husband and I have given enough foundation. She doesn’t ask me about my past so we just talk about issues of the day right now. I was not “bad”until 23. Why give up my stuff if it’s not relevant.

    Reply
  11. journeymom Report

    My son has used it against me and i regret what I have told him. My daughter, on the other hand, realizes, from the same conversation mind you, that i do understand. So, I believe to be cautious with your tales of yesteryear. I have surrounded the last three kids, hindsight being what it is, with many people to talk too, all of whom have been chosen by me, scouts and 4H, and that way they hear different percectives from different people. Between all the relatives and group leaders there will be someone there that the kids feel they can talk too and be understood even if that person is not me or my husband. I find I have many more frames of reference this way so that I dont have to speak of my own sowing of my wild oats. I use others!!!!

    Reply
  12. Arbonnelady Report

    I have raised 6 kids, not all my own, and the youngest is still 5. I never told any of them what I was like in middle school, or high school. I was wild and thought I knew everything. By the time I was 22, divorced with 2 young children, I realized all that I didn’t know. Now at 65, I am still learning.

    My children would often say back to me, “how would you know, you were a goody-goody”. They would brush me off as if I didn’t understand how they felt. That’s when I started telling them some of the hard lessons I had learned. I found that basically, kids learn best through their own experiences. However, they know that no matter what they do, I will still love them. And we can work things out. It keeps the lines of communication open, and that is what I believe is the most important.

    Reply
  13. HealthyGirls Report

    I was very inquisitive as a teenager – I tried things that I wish I hadn’t. My little girls, 5 & 8, are very interested in what I was like growing up – and tend to try to emulate from the stories that they’ve heard. Between that, and the fact that I felt it was okay to smoke because my parent did, I plan to “temper” the truth for my children. In addition, I’m co-owner of a company(www.HealthyGirls.net) that works to enhance the self-esteem of young girls through exercise and nutritional education. I wish there was something like this when I was growing up. If I had had the self-esteem that we’re seeing coming out of our classes, I would have had the guts to “just say no” to a lot of things that I just went along with. My girls are participating in these classes and will be better prepared to believe in themselves and their foundational beliefs than I ever was.

    Reply
  14. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Dear Whattodo: It sounds like your son is more of the rebellious type, huh? (That’s my fear, too. My husband, although he rebelled a little, was pretty much the good, quiet, scholarly type. Karma being what it is, I’m guessing my son will take after me. Ugh.) At any rate, I think you have to trust your gut on this one. You might want to call (or go meet) the “dad” at the apartment yourself and check out the situation a little more. (Case in point — I always hung out at my best friend’s apartment in town. Her mom was a night nurse, so even though my mom *thought* we were under parental supervision, we really weren’t.) I really think you have to trust your instincts here in order to protect your son. Good luck, and let us know what you decide to do!

    Reply
  15. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Shannon1105: I can definitely see using your own experiences as a life lesson for your kids — that was my first inclination, as well, and I think it probably works for some teens. I began to see things differently after talking to a whole lot of parents who say they regret telling their kids what they got up to in High School (like Romeorose). So now I’m leaning on the side of not saying anything at all, changing the subject, etc. I don’t want my son to say, “You did it. Why can’t I?” I suppose in my heart of hearts, I want to protect him and don’t want him to make the same mistakes I made.

    Reply
  16. Romeorose Report

    If I had the choice to do it over again (famous last words) I would not have told my teenagers about some of the trouble I had gotten into in school. It has totally backfired on me! I hear the “well you did it, and you turned out fine, let me learn on my own”. They didnt hear the wisdom from Mom… My 20 yr old niece tells me to tell her about her Mom in high school because her Mom wont tell her anything… good thing to because together her Mom and I were quite a pair! 🙂
    So, if i did have the chance to go back, yes i would have lied if only to protect them a little more.. Right or Wrong, who knows!?

    Reply
  17. whattodo Report

    I acted out in high school and am choosing to selectively
    share with my 15 year old son. My husband was a model student and hard worker at a job when not in school from the age of 15. My teenager has been a huge handful this freshman year. Everything from ignoring curfew, to smoking, to hanging
    out with tons of different groups of girls, to being disrepectful to us and his little brother. We have gotten a good weekly therapist involved and curfews are better, his attitude is a bit better and we use the total transformation a little…
    what do we do about our son hanging out in our downtown every single night and meeting up with girls who live with
    their dad in an apartment in town? as soon as we tell him
    the rule is not to be at anyone’s home without a parent, he
    tells me there is someone home… my husband tells me I have to have more trust and hope what we have taught him will kick in… the same with the smoking… we don’t have the control anymore and can’t do a thing about it…
    what do you think?

    Reply
  18. shannon1105 Report

    I do. My girls are 8 and 10. We talk a lot about what I was like growing up. I was a wild child. And learned a ton from it. I am passing this down to my girls. And I’m sure they will make some of the same mistakes and some new ones for the book of “Oh goodness did I really do that!” as they grow up. I tell them so when they are afced with the same choices maybe they will choose differentky than I did. Maybe they won’t. But if they have the tools maybe they’ll use them.

    Reply

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