There was an interesting opinion piece in The Globe and Mail on October 2nd about being honest with your children when discussing your own alcohol and drug use when you were young. I suppose this applies to sexual experiences too. Having spent as many years as I did working with preteens and teenagers, I am bit torn about his advice. While I know that it is always best to be as honest as possible with young people, I also know that there are too many variables in play to give a blanket seal of approval to the “be honest” approach when discussing sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
Age appropriateness is an area that isn’t as seriously discussed as much as it receives lip service. We live in an era of the parent as peer with parents and teens conversing and interacting on a level playing field with rules and officials viewed as quaint anachronisms. Parents should certainly take a more proactive role when it comes to dispensing and disseminating the information that their children receive through dubious sources when it comes to drugs, drinking and sex. Television, movies, popular music, the Internet, and of course peers, can spread as much misinformation as not, and there are too many truly stupid people in and out of your child’s life on a daily basis for you not to pay attention to what they are learning and from whom.
Even though my own child is quite young. I have been on the receiving end of uncomfortable questions as a teacher and in personal relationships with younger people. Students reach a certain age where they take great delight in putting teachers on the spot whenever circumstances allow. In my role as teacher I have been asked about drinking habits, past drug use and the age at which I lost my virginity,among other things. The district where I taught arbitrarily chose grade 7 as the year to begin sex education, and many of my co-workers dreaded when the unit would come up in the Family and Consumer Science class because very often the children would sit passively in that class and ask their questions later in our classes. I gained a reputation for being able to answer their questions without stammering or blushing, and it was this experience that led me to the conclusion that if you are calm and as matter of fact as possible when addressing potentially explosive issues with kids, they will generally take you at your word. So, did I admit to drinking as a teen? No, I didn’t need to because I kept it to the present tense. I rarely drink. I don’t drink to get drunk when I do. From there my students assumed, incorrectly, that I had always been that way. Is this lying? Need to know is key when dealing with children, and my students simply didn’t need to know what I was like as nineteen year old college student. Older teens would always ask about pot smoking. My stock answer was, and is still that I have asthma and therefore couldn’t. Many of my students were on probation for drug offenses and looking for any example they could find of respectable adults who had smoked weed in high school. The truth is that I could have had I wanted to. My younger brother was growing it in the basement after all, but I really could never smoke. I grew up in the house of a smoker and was allergic by then, though I didn’t realize it. Smoke of any kind made me cough and wheeze. Even if I had done this in high school, there was no reason for me to admit it and plenty not to give the circumstances. It gets back to variables and the bumpiness of the playing field. My high school students came from families where parents smoked, drank, ran through sexual partners faster than the seasons changed. They needed me to be an adult. Their questions were a way of confirming that I was.
When it came to sex, my first test was a close friend’s oldest daughter. She and her sisters are like nieces to me. I watched them all grow up. When she was sixteen, she had her first serious boyfriend and she asked me about birth control because she was thinking about being intimate. I gave her the information and I also told her she needed to talk with her mom because if she was old enough to have sex and use birth control, she was old enough to be honest about her actions with her parents. After all, since college my motto has always been that if I couldn’t tell my mom about it, I shouldn’t be doing it. She did talk with her mom as a result, but when she asked me how old I was when I first had sex, I was honest. I was just shy of twenty-one. Old by standards now and then, but if I had been younger, I would have told her that too. Would I have shared the information in a classroom. No. That’s not appropriate for the setting or the relationship of teacher and student. Which gets back to my early argument of appropriateness.
Being honest does not mean that children have any right to information about your past beyond the need to know rule, and it is foolish of parents to share their misadventures in their teens with their teen and younger children simply because they are still children and will not learn from your mistakes. They aren’t old enough or experienced enough to internalize, or even see, the lesson you are hoping to teach them. Teens especially are blind to anything that is contrary to what they want. There is no need for them to know when you first started drinking, if you have ever smoked pot or the age at which you lost your virginity. All evidence points to the fact that when teens ask you these types of questions, they are looking for permission which is what knowledge of your teen actions provides. And when they discover that you evaded (and I recommend evasion highly over out-right lying)? You don’t owe them an answer to that either. You are the parent and you were acting in their best interests at the time, and they will understand should they have children of their own someday. Yes, there is a reason that cliche exists. It’s true.
Parent and child is never an equal relationship no matter the ages of either. When your children reach adulthood and are out living on their own, share until your heart bursts with fulfillment and lovey-dovey bonding, but until they be the parent. Be as perfect as possible, even if it is not quite the truth.