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Why I Told My Kids About My Wild Teen Years

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In an article on CNN.com, Kelly Wallace discusses President Obama's openness about his drug use during his teen years and surveys moms and parenting experts about how they handled or would advise handling the controversial topic of being open with your kids about your own drug use during your teen years. Whatever you think about sharing your own story, this is a topic that must be discussed with children before they are faced with the challenges that come with being a teenager, which include the temptation and social pressures of drinking, sex, and drug use.

My high school years were a pot smoke-filled haze of bad decisions. For a variety of reasons, including a cross-country move at the age of 14 and the break-up of my parents' marriage, I was not a happy girl during my high school years. I was drawn to the wild, more exciting people I met instead of those who were more academically and socially mainstream. In retrospect I believe I was depressed and anxious, and I turned to pot to dull my feelings and make things easier. Never much of a drinker, I preferred the lazy, dozy feeling of being stoned, and I was stoned a lot.

I started telling my kids about my history when they were quite young for two reasons. First, I wanted them to understand the fallout from my drug use, including a horrendous high school academic record which severely affected my options for college, and second because I wanted them to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and choices when it came to drugs and drinking. These conversations were my tame, suburban version of the unforgettable film Scared Straight, with a little bit of Jewish mom guilt thrown in.

I knew my kids experimented with pot and alcohol when they were in high school -- I wasn't stupid. But many of my friends, who opted not to talk openly with their kids, were shocked to learn years after their kids were out of high school that those kids had indulged far more than they ever suspected. I had the "do I tell my kids or don't I" conversation with quite a few parents over the years, and I was definitely in the minority in my belief that being honest about my experiences was the best way to go. Did the fact that these parents essentially lied -- by omission -- to their children about their own drug and drinking history have anything to do with the fact that they were unaware of the things their kids were doing during high school? I like to think that my openness with my kids is what allowed them to be open with me -- sometimes -- about what they were doing.

I know there were things they didn't tell me, and that's ok. I didn't want to know everything... believe me.

I was always surprised by the short memories so many parents seemed to have when I was raising my kids. It was as if they had never been teenagers, trying to fit in, rebelling against their parents, or wanting to feel older or experience something new. And forget about sex - though the parents may have been sexually active in high school, there was no way their kids were. Even if the teen had a long-term relationship, so many of the parents were sure there was nothing to worry about.

"He/she said they're not having sex."

Well, ok.

There's no one answer to the dilemma of how openly to talk to your children, and parents have to figure out what works best for them, based on their values and experiences. If I had different kids, my tactic could have backfired -- they might have taken my history as a license to go wild, with the "you did it so why can't I?" rationalization. Fortunately for us my candid conversations with them seemed to help steer them in the direction of being more cautious and thoughtful than I was -- at least most of the time.

That's not to say they didn't have their moments.

True story: When my daughter was a senior in high school, I cut my finger badly one night when I was cooking dinner. "Bring me a vodka on the rocks," I asked her, because it really, really hurt. When she took the bottle out of the freezer, the vodka was frozen. As you probably know, vodka doesn't freeze. For a few minutes we couldn't figure it out, until finally I realized that she and her friends had replaced much of the vodka with water. She was so busted.

Parenting is uncharted territory for all of us, and each stage brings new issues that we have to deal with, often without any idea of what we're doing. I followed my instincts, as all parents should do. Fortunately for my kids -- and for me -- my instincts were usually right.

Previously published on Empty House Full Mind

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