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Do As I Say, Not As I Do Parents Must Walk A Fine Line When Explaining Touchy Issues To Children

Mon., March 9, 1998

Maybe you smoked pot in your younger days. Perhaps you occasionally borrowed a cold one from your dad’s six-pack of brew whenever he was not around. Or maybe on your dates you routinely skipped heavy petting and moved on to the next stage.

Children experiment. It’s in their job description. They often use poor judgment and engage in behaviors so risky that, when we as adults reflect upon our youth, we are amazed that we made it through those years in one piece.

As parents we usually reap the karma we sowed as youngsters: One day you’re bound to face the prospect of admonishing your child or issuing a warning against something that you once did.

Guilt paralyzes some parents who feel at odds with telling their youngsters not to do something they once did.

For other parents, such scenarios evoke the feeling of a game of truth or dare: Do I dare reveal my own past indiscretions or do I shade the truth?

How you tell your children not to — even though you did — can determine whether or not they understand the long-term consequences of their choices — and eventually make wise decisions.

“It is our responsibility to teach our children these morals regardless of whether we made poor decisions in the past,” said Diane Suhm, a family educator at the Parent Resource Center in Orlando, Fla. “It’s really important for us to separate ourselves from the issue.”

For some parents that is a difficult thing. The thought of preaching abstinence may be uncomfortable to a woman who had a child out of wedlock. And the parent who inhaled as much pot smoke as oxygen in his halcyon days may become tongue-tied when delivering the big “Say No to Drugs” speech.

When such touchy issues arise, so often does guilt. Parents, however, cannot afford guilt. It comes with too high a price, experts say.

“It’s not about your guilt,” said Teresa Langston, author of “Parenting Without Pressure” (NavPress, 1994). “You want the best for your kid, and you do that by equipping them to understand the behavior but a lot of times we get caught up in our own stuff.”

Some parents love to unload their stuff on their kids. Langston leads parent education workshops, where she often encounters parents who treat their young children as confidants, sharing with them more information than the child is able to handle.

Such disclosures can backfire.

“Kids use it as ammunition when they get older,” Langston said. Such admissions “justify it in the kid’s mind - you did it and you turned out OK. What’s the big deal?”

Even parents who do not routinely divulge their tabloid details will have to address these issues.

Perhaps a child overhears a telephone conversation where you discussed a particularly bad or embarrassing situation. Or curiosity will nudge a child into asking about sex, drugs, alcohol or any other issue that is guaranteed to cause a parent to squirm.

“I think we can expect that kids are going to be testing us. They’re going to be asking questions like did you do drugs or did you have sex,” said Suhm of the Parent Resource Center. “It’s important to stay focused on the issue.”

Parents should not lie when children ask about their past choices. But Mom and Dad are not obliged to volunteer any gory details.

When the questions come, Michael H. Popkin, author of “Active Parenting of Teens,” a video-based parent education program headquartered in Atlanta, suggests parents “dodge their question by reflecting it back to them.”

If a teenage girl asks Mom “Did you have sex before you were married?” Popkin said Mom might say, “Oh … I see. Are you wondering about whether to become sexually active?”

That opens the line of communication. Now mother and daughter can comfortably discuss the issues - peer pressure, curiosity, etc.

Sometimes children won’t let Mom and Dad off the hook that easily. If pressed, Langston suggests this line of defense: “You can say, ‘Growing up I learned some things the hard way, and I want you not to go about it that way.”’

Or parents can make this deal with the child: “When you are 18 or 21, we can sit down and you can ask me anything about my adolescence,” Langston said. “Right now, it’s not relevant. What is important is what decisions you will make in the future.”

If your child already knows you lived with someone without the benefit of marriage or that you landed in jail for shoplifting, then sharing the mistake and the consequences can be helpful as a deterrent.

Popkin suggests a parent might say, “I know I made some mistakes, but fortunately I was one of the lucky ones - I survived. I didn’t hit a tree and die or overdose on something … Some others weren’t so lucky. I love you so much that I don’t want you to play Russian roulette with such things. You might not be lucky.”

If you got away with whatever you did without any serious consequences, you should keep that remembrance to yourself.


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