Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

secret-parentingUnless you’re perfect and have never made a mistake, it’s a good bet you made some choices before you had children that you’re not particularly proud of. Youthful indiscretions litter the pasts of Moms and Dads everywhere, so take comfort — you have plenty of company.

A brief starter marriage? Experimentation with recreational substances? A run-in with the police? Maybe something more serious. We all have the odd item lurking back there that we’d prefer to forget.

The question is, how much should you own up to with your kids, and how much is yours to keep private? How big a secret is too big? What do kids need to know? And if you decide to tell them, what time is the right time?

There are no easy answers, but there are some guidelines that can point squirmy parents in the right direction. Chances are, the item you’re most worried about falls into one of the following categories:

Does it affect them directly, or is it likely to sometime in the future?

This includes things like family medical history (this is stuff they need to know), past marriages (they’re going to find out whether you like it or not), and older half-siblings or step-siblings (it should go without saying). While it might be hard to talk about, you wouldn’t want your guys to find out later and feel blindsided because you never told them.

You must divulge these big, important truths or suffer the consequences. It goes to the core of your integrity. Note that they haven’t yet developed the judgements you might have about this news. If you matter-of-factly make it part of their childhood knowledge they’ll take it in stride. Just like the fact that their red hair came from Grandpa Jack or that Aunt Fatima was once a contortionist for Cirque De Soleil.

So if Uncle Joe is alcoholic or your youngest brother died of an unidentified neurologic condition, talk about it. Make it part of your family story and include that they need to be careful to monitor their health and avoid addictive behaviorss. It’s much easier to learn those truths at a young age and incorporate them into your life moving forward.

Does it relate to issues that they, too, will be dealing with and are likely to ask you about? 

The classic example is past experimentation (or significant familiarity) with illegal substances. Some young people have excellent judgement during high school and college, and when offered mood enhancers they channel their future wise-Dad self and decline — but many others don’t.

Husband and I were never big risk takers, but let’s face it, we grew up in the seventies. Enough said. We struggled with how to answer this question as our kids got older. If (when) they asked if we’d ever tried cigarettes or pot, what would we say? Would we tell the truth, or would that open the flood gates and send a permissive message? Would we pretend that we never had, or was that too risky in case big-mouthed relatives or childhood friends spilled it one day? Ultimately we chose a middle ground; one that was more honest.

Tobacco was never an issue — they were grossed out, and so were we. But yes, we admitted we tried pot (once! ok maybe twice), but that it wasn’t the best decision on our part. AND that was the weed of the 1970’s, which had about 1/10th the potency and additives of today’s product. We urged them to learn from our mistakes and avoid the risk. Plus, oh-by-the-way, it’s against the law.

This approach was wildly successful in that it delayed the very likely until such time as the rational executive centers of their brains were more developed. Ultimately, the choice was theirs, but they would make it with eyes wide open.

Is it something that’s truly yours alone? None of their concern? 

There’s no reason to spill your guts about that big fat F you got in chemistry or the time you were caught doin’ it up in the back seat of your Dad’s car unless it’s useful to prove a point. That SAT cheating scandal can probably remain on the down low unless you’re running for elective office.

Don’t share things that will only add angst and confusion for your kids without offering a lesson or an upside.

But beware: anything that makes a great story is likely to come out sometime in the future. Your best friend from fifth grade won’t be able to resist, so if it’s harmless you may want to be the one to give it up.

Bottom line — there are two major important considerations. DON’T omit anything your kids need to know, and DON’T flat-out lie. If you do it will impact their ability to trust you. That’s never worth it, no matter how much it makes you cringe to reveal the truth.


The rest of the baggage is up to you.








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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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2 responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”

  1. Dr Efrat Schorr

    Oh, Mamas on Call, you have done it again! What a thoughtful, careful and wise article. As kids get older, there is very little that we can do that is worse than losing their trust. Its far worse than the embarrassment of the sins of our youth or uncomfortable facts about the past. Parents have a hard time imagining that their children can find out for themselves if they want to know something badly enough. Creating open lines of communication can lead to kids actually coming to their parents for information – way preferable over the kids in the hall or the internet.

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