Last week, I sat down with my 11-year-old son to deliver that time-honored rite of passage -- for parents as well as kids -- our first "Birds and the Bees" talk. I was prepared for every possible question, except the one he asked.
"Dad, have you ever cheated on Mom?"
Didn't see that one coming. Lucky for me, I was able to look my son straight in the eye and tell him that I'd never cheated on his mom and didn't intend to. (Good thing he didn't ask me about one of my college spring break vacations!) Let's face it; children are adept at asking questions that catch parents off guard. How should we handle our kids' personal, probing and potentially embarrassing questions?
You know the ones:
• When did you have your first drink?
• Did you ever smoke marijuana?
• Did you ever get into trouble with the police?
• How old were you when you first had sex?
It's always a challenge answering a child's tough questions about growing up, but when your personal history may be involved, it gets even more complicated. If you tell the truth about past transgressions, are you implicitly encouraging your kids to engage in the same behavior? Or prompting a backlash along the lines of, "you're such a hypocrite. You have no right to tell me what to do!"
On the other hand, what are the consequences of hiding, or even lying about, your past, even for the best of reasons? Might your child discover the truth and never trust you again?
Before my son could surprise me a second time, I decided to do a little research on how parents should respond to personal questions from their kids. Though each situation depends on the child's personality, age, maturity and motivation, I learned that parents can avoid awkward conversations and communicate more effectively with their kids if they follow these simple guidelines:
• Create a foundation for communicating with your kids. If you establish a pattern of having frank talks with children when they're young, they'll feel more comfortable coming to you for answers as they mature. In my family, I began a tradition of storytelling with my sons when they were little. Over the years I've found that creating stories together is the perfect way to teach values, share experiences and prompt questions.
• Given them opportunities to ask questions. Your kids may be itching to ask you a question, but are hesitant to raise a touchy or embarrassing topic. Make it easy for them. If you bring up the subject first, they may say, "Well, since you asked..."
• Have a consistent family policy. When it comes to questions about some subjects, such as drug use, discuss with your spouse or partner beforehand how you're going to respond. It's best that you both deliver the same, consistent and firm message the moment your child first poses that probing question.
• Be prepared for tough questions. If your kids haven't asked you yet about your past, they will. I guarantee it. Be thinking now about how you're going to answer and how you can use your personal experiences as a teaching tool.
• Figure out what they're asking and why. Before you disclose anything, figure out why your child is asking the question. There may be a particular problem your child is struggling with, so you want to respond accordingly. In my son's case, I discovered that a friend's parents had recently divorced and an affair may have been a cause. No wonder he was asking me questions about infidelity.
• Be honest. While you don't have to tell them everything about a personal indiscretion, you need to be honest about what you do tell your children. Kids, especially teenagers, have a low tolerance for hypocrisy. If they discover you weren't straight with them, it may be a long time before they'll be willing to trust you again.
• Admit your mistake. If you disclose a history of drug use or underage drinking and smoking, tell your kids that you made a big mistake, one that you don't want them to repeat.
I don't buy the argument that telling kids about our past transgressions will provide them with a justification for their own misconduct. We shouldn't be afraid to show our children that we're not perfect -- they know that already! Otherwise, if we send an embellished message that we've never made mistakes, aren't we setting an unrealistic bar for them to clear? It's better to engage in a frank discussion with our kids about the reasons for our past misbehavior (e.g., immaturity, peer pressure, stressful family situations, feelings of immortality, etc.), the consequences of our poor choices and what we did to correct our mistakes.
Finally, look at awkward questions as an opportunity. If your kids are asking questions, it means they're looking for answers and trust your judgment. Take the time to really connect with them by answering their questions thoughtfully and patiently. In the process, you'll build an open and honest relationship that will withstand any mistakes you both may make.
John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of 'Dad, Tell Me A Story,' How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com, or read their regular posts on The Parent Network at http://ptvn.org.