In light of Madonna's behavior over the years, it might be tempting to point a judgmental finger her way whenever her children do, well, just about anything. Case in point: Photographers captured 15-year-old Lourdes, cigarette in hand last week, and the New York Post promptly speculated that she'd picked up the smoking habit from Mom.
It all seemed too easy: Madonna was puffing away in her new "Girl Gone Wild" music video, and the teen obviously had caught a bad habit.
But the thing is irresponsible behavior isn't necessarily contagious. At some point, even if your wildest days were nothing like Madonna's, odds are your children will get into trouble. Whether it's smoking, drinking or something harder, you'll have to address the issue and any skeletons in your closet may make those conversations tricky.
Sigh … if only, "Do as I say, not as I did" was an effective parenting strategy -- it's not. "It was different in my day, we didn't know how bad it is for you," isn't going to work either. Data has shown that teens don't respond well to parental hypocrisy and might be more likely to smoke if they sense it.
Honesty is paramount. Even if kids ask the dreaded question: "What did you try when you were my age?" make sure you strategically toe the line between sharing and over-sharing.
"Being honest with your kids is particularly important, since they'll probably find out if you aren't anyway. But disclosing too much can be a problem, too," said Dr. Dorothy Stubbe, an associate professor and director at the Yale Child Study Center.
"If they find out Mom was kind of wild when she was younger and you've already told them, 'I never would have done anything' then your credibility is sort of down the tubes."
On the flip side, over-sharing about a sordid history without mentioning regret, consequences or lessons learned, can glamorize irresponsible behavior. If there's a reason why you didn't become a full-blown smoker, share it as part of your admission that you did have an occasional cigarette. If you smoked heavily, or still do, dissuade children from picking up the habit without sounding like a total hypocrite.
"Letting kids know the struggle that you as a parent have had trying to stop smoking, the concerns about your health, how difficult is to stop, how you’ve really wanted to stop and have had such a hard time -- it can be very helpful to kids," said Stubbe.
Your message becomes, Stubbe said, "I would like your life to be better than mine, and I've learned something here and I'd like you not to make the same mistake." The same advice holds for drinking: If you did so to excess and faced negative consequences, use that experience to explain why you want your child to avoid alcohol.
Another tip is to try talking to your kids about these difficult subjects before they bring them up to you. "With teenagers in general, laying down the law and not having discussions about it can have the great risk of having kids not feel comfortable talking about whatever issues they might be having and doing things behind your back secretly," said Stubbe.
Now, if at any point while reading this, you thought to yourself, "Wait, kids still smoke!? Didn't that problem go away when it became common knowledge that smoking is bad for you?" you're in for a rude awakening. There are many anti-smoking campaigns and Joe Camel's cover as a teen-magnet is long gone. But 1 in 5 high-schoolers smokes, and the U.S. Surgeon General's Office recently found that while the teen smoking rate has decreased, its rate of decline has slowed.
Assuming your child will grow out of their experimentation phase also is not advised. "For any substance, tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, there's some pretty good data that having your parents talk to you about it, confirming knowing about it … is much better than passive parents who assume it's a phase," said Stubbe.
So, hide your stash, mix some virgin margaritas and have a nice long -- possibly confessional but most importantly honest -- talk.
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