How and when do you tell your kids your dirty little secrets?

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Huge Mistake hoop art by TheKitschyStitcher
Like many of us my husband and I have pasts… and not everything is lily white. I went through a time where I was making some fairly high risk choices to sooth personal self-esteem issues, and my husband was married before to a person who for many reasons was a very bad choice. While we aren’t proud of these things in our past, we also aren’t ashamed of them — they are part of who we are, and helped define our characters. Our hope is that our children can learn from our mistakes without making them (they should make their own mistakes and stop copying ours!).

How and when do we tell them our mistakes — and how do we tell our kids we aren’t perfect while still clearly establishing rules about what behavior is OK? -H. Prynne

Comments on How and when do you tell your kids your dirty little secrets?

  1. I’ll be really interested to hear other parents’ answers to this! It’s a conversation my fiance and I have had many times about my son. I’m bisexual, and it’s important to me for my son to know this about me because it’s a big part of who I am, and I feel like knowing that his Mom is in a non-typical place on the spectrum will help him to find comfort and confidence as he figures out his place on the spectrum. But at what age is it the right time? And how exactly do you sit him down for that conversation? I think it’s a tough line to walk for any parent, but I think the more a child is able to see their parent as a full person the better their relationship will be as they get older and become adults themselves.

    • My answer to this (from a big sister perspective) was less to ever have a conversation about my sexuality and more to never make assumptions about hers.

      “So, got a crush on anyone this year?”
      “Yeah … maybe …”
      “Cool! Is it a boy or a girl?”
      “A boy! ”

      “Got any cute teachers?”
      “All our teachers are women.”
      “But are any of them cute?”
      “No! Geez!”

      By high school the shocked denials fell away – and occasionally the answer to the crush question was “a girl.” It was never a big deal between us because I had always acted like that was just as legitimate a possibility.

  2. So far, with my 11 year old, things have been revealed about my specific past “exploits” as they’ve applied. Right off the bat she was exposed to alternative lifestyles. Lifestyles that I didn’t want her to see as alternative or offbeat, but just as another normal.
    Now, she’s about to enter junior high, although a little younger than I was at the time that I entered junior high (due to the school system deciding that 6th graders should now be there as well as the 7th and 8th grades). Junior high was a really bad place for me… it’s where I discovered some mighty bad things like cigarettes, drugs, lust and sex among others. I felt like she had a right to know how the mistakes I made had their impact on me. How they started off as mistakes friends of friends were making and then eventually friends were making and then eventually I was making. I remember in 7th grade seeing one of the 8th grade girls already walking through the halls pregnant. I was like “holy crap, that can happen?”. I didn’t think it could for me, but eventually, it did when I was in my senior year of high school. How do you balance explaining a mistake you made when that mistake is technically your daughter? I’m not saying that I’ve ever seen her as a mistake at all and I wouldn’t give her back for all the world. But, it’s not what I want for HER and it’s been a steady limbo of explaining how out of a large group of girls who also had babies in high school I was one of a very few who didn’t have anymore babies until we were older, married and ready. How, out of the large number of us that dropped out of school, I was the ONLY one that went back and finished, went to college, now own my own business, etc. How, I got lucky that her father, who was only 18 at the time, decided he wanted to be active and involved in his daughter’s life regardless of our involvement with each. It always varied over the years and eventually ended in our marriages to another after awhile. But, he continues to be there in her life. I was lucky that my family all stood by me, even though most were deeply religious and against such things… my mom was amazing, explaining how I could do it all, and she would help me with it. I was REALLY lucky. And although she’ll also have a mother who will help her through it if it ever does happen to her, she may not be so lucky with any of the rest of it.
    We’ve had a dialogue that revolves around “inappropriate behaviors influenced by a need to fill the gaps of a negative self-esteem” going for quite a bit now. We’ve also done everything under the sun to boost her self-esteem and show her how her own wins and failures can influence it also. We’ve also been talking about the intricacies of sex since she was 7… starting with how babies are made and some basics… and eventually getting to a now taboo subject with most parents and their kids their kid’s sex lives.
    So yeah, take advantage of particular moments in which part of your life seems to fit that moment in THEIR lives and use it as a lesson. 🙂

  3. When I was in 5th grade, we had to do a family tree project. It was the first time I’d ever had to know my parents’ wedding anniversary, so I asked my mom. She said it was October __, 1983 (I forget). I was born the next April. I bet she could see the calculations going on in my brain. “…oh.” It wasn’t really a big deal after that — and I think a big reason is that no one in my extended family ever cast it up to me, or mentioned it at all as far as I remember. Now that I’m planning my own wedding, I asked a few more questions, and it’s amusing to hear my mom talk about getting married in a maternity top rather than what she planned to wear, because they didn’t know they could get married the same day they applied for a license (but when they found out, they did it right then rather than wait ’til the next week).

    I was a young teen when I learned that both of my parents had had a previous marriage each — my mother may just have mentioned her ex-husband in conversation, while my father’s ex-wife passed away then, and so there was a logistical component to learning of that history. When I asked more about her, he told me some of the details of how they met and married and divorced. I think broaching the subject casually and waiting for the child to ask questions is a good way to go.

  4. If it’s something that might affect their lives: ie: you had a child that you gave up for adoption, a previous abortion, were married, they were born when you were young, etc. then I think it’s worth telling them about. If it’s something like you used to be addicted to drugs/alcohol or worked as a prostitute or something I don’t necessarily think that’s something important to tell them. Quite honestly, you never learn anything from someone else’s mistakes, why risk making yourself look less in your child’s eyes? Especially since in the case of teenagers, they might very well try to throw it back in your face.

    If they do find out about it, then own up to it and tell them that everyone makes mistakes in their life, the good thing is that you learned and evolved.

    I have been having a similar discussion with my 11 year old about the fact that he was born when I was 18 and his father chose to leave. It has been a difficult conversation, but a necessary one.

    I would never talk to him about my own drug use until he’s into adulthood. I just don’t see the reason to let him know about it.

    • As the daughter of an addict knowing that shareing my mother’s genes left me vulnerable to that kind of addictive behaviour, I was wary of and quite careful around drugs and alchohol because she talked to me about it. I’m not saying I completly obstained but I was more aware of what kind of choice I was making and the risks I could be taking.

      • I’m the same way because of my dad’s alcoholism. We frequently talked about how my dad used to be an alcoholic, and in return I’m very careful around alcohol.

    • My husband’s mom told him, at a fairly young age, that she had an abortion prior to having him. I think the intended effect was, “See, I made the choice to have you!” but I don’t think it had a very positive effect, other than giving her fodder to throw at him during arguments.

      • My children know I had an abortion as a teenager and they would never use it as ‘fodder’ – I don’t think they even remember it. It has probably got a lot to do with the significance you attach to telling someone something personal.

    • I agree with you a bit, but the drug talk in adulthood? Surely a drug talk should happen in the early teens at the latest (I have been informing my kids about drugs since they were younger than that), and your own experience (not in explicit detail) is important as a child/ teenager will often say ‘how do you know if you’ve never tried it?’

    • In my case, my mom was am addict while I was a child and could remember, so covering it up would be fruitless. But even if she hadn’t been, the conversations we’ve had about her addiction and her process of getting clean are some of the most memorable, and it is mostly because I know her history with addiction that I’ve never tried recreational drugs.

  5. I really agree with Anie. I don’t think it is sitting them down for a single conversation. Its taking the shame out of it by having non loaded conversations through out their life time. I’m a queer feminist activist, sex educator, and feminist porn director and performer. I also run a non profit art organization in the LGBTQ community. My partner, her father, is a cis-gendered man, but I celebrate being queer, we are a part of the queer community and mommy may have lovers of different genders. That doesn’t mean that I love daddy any less. My partner and I are practicing something we coined as Love Art Parenting with an emphasis and celebrating and advoating for individuality and expression through art and advocating and guiding our daughter through the affectionate relationships with others (and herself and her own body). My daughter is already 1 and half but we are lying the ground work for consent and guiding her through displays of affection and communication about giving and receiving of affection. She is fearless and comfortable with her body People ask me how I will one day tell my daughter about making or performing in porn. For me this is not something of shame. Just as sharing love and affectionate energy with someone is not shameful. It feels really good to receive a big bear hug from a friend. If your mommy takes a photo or video tapes that hug it simply captures that moment of shared affection to watch later. There are different age appropriate ways to show affection. I’m sure there will be complicated conversations to navigate through but I plan on always being honest with my daughter and providing the ground work for us to communicate and navigate through those challenging conversations. In the case of mommy and daddy having previous relationships I think talking about how we have lots of love in our hearts and how your child enjoys having more than one friend, or your child might have a bff in 1st grade and that bff might change by the time they are in 2nd or 3rd grade. Describing marriage as a special bff kind of relationship and just because they had one bff and really enjoyed being bffs with the child at that time doesn’t effect their relationship with their current bff. Speak your childs language and relate the conversation to relationships that they understand. Hope that helps.

    • Excuse me while I add nothing to the conversation, except to say – Madison Young, you ROCK. Your films helped my partner understand that BDSM is not anti-feminist, nor would his acting as a Dom means treating me as a lesser person. That, and you are incredibly gorgeous, and smart, and funny…


  6. This is a tough question for me. My mother was in an abusive relationship when she was only about 20 years old, and during that time she ended up having an abortion. It’s strange because, by the time she had started her family, she had converted to pretty hardcore conservative Catholicism. We were raised with a strong focus on the evils of abortion; it was really the hot topic at our church, and was discussed incessantly. One day I guess my mother overheard me and my brothers talking in really negative terms about women who had abortions (I must have been seven or eight) and I guess, for some reason, she decided at that particular moment to teach us a little tolerance. So she just said, “Well, I had an abortion. Do you think I’m a bad person?”

    It was such a shocking moment that I still remember it vividly. I appreciate that she was trying to teach us to be more loving and accepting, which is good, but she did it so unceremoniously. I also cannot emphasize how much abortion was discussed in negative terms in my home. I was surrounded by pamphlets with graphic images, people prayed and sang sad songs about fetuses, and women who chose to have abortions were painted in a VERY negative light. If my mother had taken a more moderate stance towards abortion and then sat down with us and told us the whole story, it would have been easier for me to deal with. But to have it framed so horribly and then have her just drop a bomb … was really hard. I actually struggled with it for YEARS without telling anybody. It was a lot for a young kid to process. I couldn’t figure out how to feel about my mother and about abortion in general, and I just felt a lot of fear, sadness and negativity. My mother didn’t bring it up again, so I felt like I was going crazy with this knowledge, and then we all went back to vilifying abortion.

    Years and years later, when I was probably 23, I was chatting with my much younger sister. I guess we were talking about reproductive rights and how complex each situation is, because I casually mentioned my mother’s abortion. I just assumed everyone in the family knew about it. My sister had NEVER heard about it and it was pretty shocking for her too, although she was already a teenager and liberal, so probably less of a shock than for me. I felt terrible, but my mother had never mentioned to me that the younger kids didn’t know. She just assumed I would never bring it up and left it at that, with some people knowing and some not, and nobody really knowing who knew and who didn’t. My mother was angry at me, but I had absolutely no clue that I couldn’t talk about it to certain family members. She said she never told the other kids because I had such a bad reaction and she didn’t want to repeat that.

    My mother still has a lot of secrets that she doesn’t talk about. She’s a warm, friendly, nurturing person, but she seems to believe that her past is that — her past, something she wants to erase entirely. She never acknowledges the ways it can contribute to who she is now. I feel this is VERY much her personality. Now, she’s an agnostic peace-loving hippie. The effects of being raised in such a deeply religious and conservative household still linger with me strongly, but she hates it when I bring it up. I once brought up my crazy childhood on Facebook and my mother was livid until I deleted it. She didn’t want her current friends to know that she was ever such a staunch Catholic.

    Once I found a photo of who I assume was her ex-husband and asked her who it was, and she went white and just ripped it up and never talked about it. Oddly, the way she’s approached it has contributed to a lot more negativity, sadness and uncertainty than if she had talked somewhat more openly about her past. I know it’s hers to deal with and being a parent doesn’t require total transparency, but as her kids, we are just aware enough of her past to be curious or have emotional reactions, but not enough to be able to openly talk with her about it and get more perspective. It’s a rough balance, and one I hope to avoid myself.

    (I should add that I myself was a pretty strong pro-choice advocate by the time I was a teenager, but my mother still skews pro-life, even as a current agnostic. So we tend to avoid the topic when possible.)

    • I know this is an older post, but I felt compelled to reply to your comment. My mom has a very similar attitude to her past. I didn’t find out that she had been married before her marriage to my father until I was 14, when she dropped it casually in conversation. (Unlike your mom, she assumed that my sister would have told me, since my sister found out from another family member awhile earlier.) Although it sounds melodramatic, I was devastated. Part of the reason was the way that she and my father had framed their marriage–as more mature to the point of being superior because they had waited until their 30s to marry. In part, it just shattered childish assumptions about love, but it also made me feel lied to and estranged from her (we were very close). She has since to refused to talk about that marriage or her ex-husband (expect to state that they had no children and there was no abuse) and acted similarly about pictures (of which she has none, but some other family member did). My mother’s former husband was Mexican and she lived in Mexico for several years durning their marriage. She is fluent in Spanish, but she didn’t speak Spanish to my sister and me as children because of her desire to sever herself from her past.

      Her attitude toward her past involves my past, too. My mom identifies as very progressive and a feminist, yet she reacted very badly to my coming out at 18. I have a feeling that her reaction related to something that happened in her past based on some of the (bizarre) things she said, but I have no idea what it might have been. To this day, almost a decade later, she denies her reaction, things she said, and refuses to admit wrong-doing.

      My mother also told me once about a trauma she suffered in her young adulthood that we have never since discussed. I felt the need to keep it from my sister to not betray her confidence for many years. That took a heavy toll. I have recently shared this with my sister and it has been very healing for both of us. My sister was “aware enough,” as you wrote, that she could tell something, but she couldn’t gain a real understanding. Whenever I have learned such things about my mom’s life, it has been because of her desire to advise me on related problems I’ve been facing. But I haven’t been able to work through the meaning of this advice with her, because she just closes up again after these (few and very far between) disclosures.

      Like you, I feel that “the way she’s approached it has contributed to a lot more negativity, sadness and uncertainty than if she had talked somewhat more openly about her past.” I also don’t expect transparency, and very much respect her right to privacy. But I do feel a sense of sadness and loss. There are things about her life I’m very fuzzy on because of her refusal to even provide a clear timeline to her life, much less an invitation into her emotional experience and evolution as a young adult, which I desperately wanted as a child and would have been much more instructive than proclamations given without any explanation of where they came from.

      I don’t have children yet, but my partner and I plan on starting to try soon. Because of my experience, I lean more toward (age-appropriate) openness. Meaning, rather than a periodic (and likely fraught) moments of disclosure, continued openness and dialogue. It is definitely a question on my mind, though, as someone who has primarily loved and been in relationships with women and now plans on starting a family with a male partner.

      Thank you for helping me work through some of my feelings about this, Maisy.

  7. My husband was previously married so I sometimes wonder how we’ll being it up with our daughter. As for other exploits, I always knew my parents were children of the 60’s and probably took part in a lot that the decade entailed, but it wasn’t something we discussed. I don’t know that that approach would work for all families, but I’ve managed to keep fairly on the up and up being raised that way.

  8. It depends: there are lots of small teachable moments to be had, and letting the floodgates open about former partners and miscarraiges at once will just overwhelm dude/dudette. As for drugs/alcohol in my ethics classes I’ve had to take for ed, the answer is generally ‘DON’T’. Teenagers can and will dredge your choices up in order to justify behaviors that are potentially harmfull or fatal. When I’ve been asked my students (I’m young), it’s really worked for me to say ” This isn’t about me, this is about you” and leave it at that.

    • I don’t know if I am uber liberal when it comes to drug use, but I do not see why my children should NOT use drugs! I did with no harm whatsoever. My brother is a chronic class A addict of 15 years plus. Therefore my kids REALLY know the difference between recreational and addicted drug use.
      At the ages of 13 & 16 they have not, apart from alcohol for my older son, used any drug at all. I think that has just been so demystified that they are not bothered at all.

      • “I do not see why my children should NOT use drugs! I did with no harm whatsoever. My brother is a chronic class A addict of 15 years plus.”

        …because sometimes they cause no harm whatsoever and sometimes they cause “chronic class A addict”ion?

  9. My son is only 5, and most of the “mistakes” and shenanigans have been irrelevant to discuss with him so far. But I have put a lot of thought in how I will tell him some of the things I believe he needs to know going into his teen and adult years. I think the best way to approach it would be to not make it “a talk”, but rather to be present of mind enough in my everyday interactions with him to recognize a “learning moment” and incorporate my experience into the situation rather than giving him my life story out of context. I don’t think there’s any particular “good time” to tell your children about your less than favorable past experiences. I think it depends on the child, the family dynamic, and the past in question. I would never flat out lie to him or actively hide anything form him, but I do think that parents have the responsibility of not giving children adult worries, so if something came up that I thought he wasn’t yet old and mature enough to address, I would find a way to get passed it without leaving him more curious or blatantly evading the situation. I just think every situation is so different, and in my case all theoretical because my son is still young, so it’s hard to tell how exactly it will be handled.

  10. My parents told me I had a brother, and showed a picture, but I always wondered why he wasn’t around. He was 16 when I was born. I know now that my brother was a product of a long relationship between my father and a foster child his family had. (Long story short, after she got out of the system, they stayed friends and when she had problems in her marriage, my dad was the guy with a pack of beers and a joint willing to listen). I also knew my father was disabled (this happened shortly after the foster sister found out she was pregnant)but I only found out after I started driving that he was drunk after a dentist appointment and tried to outrun a cop in his 5 day old Datsun 280ZX. AT 13, my mother told me she sold sex toys before we had moved to a posh neighborhood and at 16 she told me she was a swinger who once was in love with a soldier. (she also regrets marrying a man who can never take care of her, but she loves my father all the same.)

    It’s not a question of how to disclose these secrets. Or how to tell them. Regardless of how it happens, the kids will still find out. I can repeat verbatim how my parents almost divorced twice, but I still can’t explain why they did certain things because honestly I am too afraid to ask.

    (more afraid of the answer I’ll get than actually asking)

  11. I think it’s important to talk about things early, often and when they come up in conversation.
    When I was 16 I found out that my parents never got married and I was mad at them for lying to me (they have the same last name, I even remember my Mum telling what she wore of their wedding day when we asked as children)
    When I was 20something my parents actually did get married, but again they did this in secret and didnt tell me til afterwards.
    Well that was the straw that broke the camels back and I didnt speak to either of them for about 6 months.
    More recently I’ve discovered other family secrets that they still haven’t revealed and as an almost 30yr old I don’t know how to bring them up in conversation with them.

    Trust is sooo important in parent child relationships, so try to be as honest as you can with your children.
    If things are talked about openly, and not treated as big bad secrets then children will be may more accepting of them.

    In regards to your partners previous marriage, maybe bring it up in conversations about weddings, or when sharing photos (if they have any from their first marriage)
    You don’t need to go into details about why the marriage was bad just that they didn’t love each other and then you two found each other and it was right

    • I totally agree that talking early, often, and honestly is key. My parents split up around the time I was born, and my mother always referred to it as “the divorce” and to my father as her “ex-husband,” and once told me that there were no wedding photos because she threw them out when they got divorced. I’m 26 and I recently found out through my mother’s sister that my parents were never married. It doesn’t bother me, and I can’t imagine that it ever would have, but the direct dishonesty does bug me. I think if you start out by not being honest with your children, you reach a point where it would be terribly uncomfortable to say “that thing I told you? Yeah, that was a falsehood.” Certainly information should be doled out in age-appropriate packaging, and you might want to wait for questions rather than volunteering information outright, but deceit is never the way to go.

  12. My Dad used to tell me lots of things about his past, about the drugs, about skiving off school, about alcohol and cheating on Mum. It put me off drinking and smoking, definitely.

    It was in my teenage years, and it felt appropriate enough. It started out of conversations when we were talking about smoking or alcohol, and he’d share something off-putting from his past to try to dissuade me from starting it. Little things when I was younger, too – stuff about cigarettes tasting ‘yukky’ or whatever.

    I don’t know how I’m going to discuss relationships with future children. I don’t think I would ever tell them about being abused, about the PTSD, etc. but I would hope that my experiences can make their lives better in some way.

    Talking about being queer isn’t going to be a problem, because I’ll surround them with narratives about queer and gender-variant families, and with my queer and non-binary friends. They’ll have an uncle & uncle, so it won’t be some kind of surprise. They won’t be surrounded solely by cisgender people either, so I hope that gender and sexuality will be something we’re happy talking about.

  13. I think that it’s important to make it an ongoing dialogue, and to balance that with really listening to what your child has to say. I often felt like my mother wasn’t listening to me, and was only interested in telling me about her stories. I ultimately stopped telling her about the things that were going on in my life, which meant that I went through some pretty serious stuff without the support that I know she wanted to give me. For example, I tried to tell her about being bullied and she’d in turn tell me about how she was bullied and that would be the conversation. Years later, as I’ve slowly filled in the gaps about how bad it all was, she’s said to me “I just don’t know how I didn’t know what was going on” and I’ve never had the heart to tell her it’s because she was more interested in relating to me than she was in hearing me.

    It’s good to take advantage of those moments when these things come up and that it’s important to share your life with your kids. However, if they’re coming to you because they feel pressured to do drugs, it may not be the right time to explain your past experimentation to them. Maybe it’s best to talk about peer pressure and being true to yourself rather than about drug experimentation in particular, and save the other part of the conversation for another time. Identifying the wrong times to share is as important as identifying the right times (I have no wisdom on finding the right times and will be following the responses closely.)

    • Definitely important to let your kids be heard and to acknowledge their feelings and their situations as much as to let them in on your life. I too stopped talking to my Mum about things, although for a different reason.

      • I feel like I should add that she and I now talk about some things and she’s worked really hard to be willing to talk about my issues without making it about her. There are some topics that still veer off the rails, but for the most part, she’s really improved and I am very appreciative for the effort she’s put into fixing this part of our relationship.

  14. I agree with most of the responses saying basically, “share it when it seems relevant and helpful.” When I was in my 20’s my mom shared some shocking things her and my dad’s past. I don’t know what she was trying to do, but it wasn’t helpful. It upset me and made me wonder what else I didn’t know… but didn’t really want to ask either.
    I’m not sure how much I’ll share with my daughter. I did a lot of dangerous and stupid things, and was very lucky to not suffer many consequences. Do I really want to share that? My feeling at this point, is that it’s more important to try to foster the kind of relationship where she will be able to trust me enough to come talk to me about important things in her life. I try my best to demonstrate interest in and respect for whatever she shares with me.

    • I think there’s a difference between saying “I did some dangerous and stupid things, and I learned from them,” and actually detailing those dangerous and stupid things. I don’t know the details of my dad’s escapades, but I don’t know if my mom HAD any escapades! So guess which one I went to when things were weird and I needed advice. (I just wish someone had told me that I had a high likelihood of being allergic to weed, what to look out for if I was going to try it, and what to do if I had an allergic reaction. I’m about as mad about that as I am that no one told me I’m allergic to any hygiene products labeled “hypoallergenic” and “made for babies.”)

      But really, I didn’t want or need to know the details about my dad’s drug use or underage drinking. It was enough to know that he did it, and suffered consequences, or at least recognizes now the consequences he managed to avoid. It’s like the difference between a smoker telling me not to smoke, and a never-been-a-smoker telling me not to smoke. When the response is easily, “what do you know about it?” there’s just very little respect for the parent’s opinion.

      • I also feel compelled to add, knowing that my dad had bad experiences with a number of illicit drugs made me much less inclined to try them. Somehow my friends having bad trips was just funny, but when the possibility that I could have NEVER EVEN EXISTED because of those experiences hit me, I took it a lot more seriously.

  15. I will never forget being sixteen and out of the blue my mom asking me, “Have you ever tried LSD? Because I tried it twice and I had reeeally bad trips.” It definitely came as a shock, but the casual and curious way she asked it left me with a sort of gosh-my-mom-is-weird sort of reaction more than anything else, and also a fear of trying LSD myself because of her experience. After that, we had lots of conversations about her past drug/relationships, but it was usually me asking questions and being glad I could because she always made it clear I could ask her/talk to her about anything. My approach will probably be a little different, but I think hers worked pretty well, too.

  16. My dude and I have talked a lot about this issue, although we aren’t ready for kids quite yet. We have had very, VERY different lives and we would both rather that our kids have supportive parents who are there for them which will hopefully prevent a lot of the problems my dude ran into. Although we have declared a lot of things off-limits until our kids are in their teens (or older), if a situation comes up and it would be useful for our kids to know something, then we’ll talk about it. My dad still doesn’t tell me about a lot of the trouble he gets up to but he did give me some pointers about winning a fight at night when I was a teenager. I never needed them, but it helped to know that my dad was picked on too and that he felt it was okay if I had to deal with the situation (I didn’t, nor did I tell him how badly I was being bullied). My mum kept a lot of her past quiet but to be honest, I didn’t need to know she got expelled for a month or so. I found out through a report card when we were going through her things when I was in my late teens and it was funny. I found out on my 31st birthday that my mum did try a drug when she was in her 20s that shocked the heck out of me. I don’t think I would have had the tolerance as a teen to handle knowing that.

    So it all depends on your kids and whether the knowledge is necessary for them, if it’s something you want them to know and not feel shame or anger about and whether you feel they really can handle it. Don’t lie to them but think about whether that knowledge will hurt or help them. Our kids don’t need to know what my dude may have done with his lockpicking skills when he was young and stupid if we think it will encourage them to ALSO be young and stupid and potentially get arrested.

    If you make something no big deal, as suggested, and it’s just normal, then there’s no stigma like there would be with a surprise. But your kids may tell everyone so just be mindful about whether you want every other kid and teacher to know it too.

  17. Please don’t rob your children of the experience of having meaningful conversations about you, your life and what has shaped you – mistakes and all – because one day it’ll be too late.

    This is coming from a child’s perspective. A child that is now in her early twenties, but nonetheless, a child of a mother, who never shared her past.
    My mom passed away in the spring of this year, which was not at all expected. One day she was there, the next she was gone. In the months leading up to her death she mentioned several times that she was getting ready to share stories from her past. My mom had always been VERY secretive about her past, so I was actually looking forward to hearing these stories. But I never got the chance. My mom’s life up until she was 25 is a big mystery to me, and that will probably never change. I wish I could have had a conversation with my mom about her youth – mistakes and all.

    • It just occurred to me the other day that I don’t really know much about my parent’s lives before I was born. I know they must have had them, and done stupid, silly, or interesting things, but they never talked about it. Sad.

    • I have had a very unusual life. Because I am afraid of my children not understanding who I am I wrote a book. If I get hit by a bus my kids deserve to know what happened to me.

      Even though it is a horror story full of rape and abuse and torture. They won’t know while they are kids–they deserve to just have a safe childhood. It doesn’t matter when I die. When they are adults they can find out what happened to me.

  18. I’m having problems working this one out as well, have 2 children from a previous marriage that don’t live with me. It was violent, he went to prison I lost the plot and by the time I sorted myself out it as too late after 2 years of not seeing them (was just too hard) now they wont let me (thats ok though they are happy and well looked after and for me to come in a take them away from the people who they see as their parents, there friends and school etc wouldnt be fair). So I’ve move on got married to an awesome guy and we have our daughter who will be our only daughter thanks to complications in pregnancy. I am at an absolute loss how we tell her this without causing her problems.

    • I think that it is too big for you to be able to just tell her and everything be OK, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a big trauma either. The reality that you are all fine now is something you can remind her of – that it is possible for many bad things to happen but for people to come out of it OK. I would say not to underplay how much you love your other children, but that you knew it was in THEIR best interests to grow up with someone else. I would not have this conversation with a child before 12, and not if anything else of difficulty is going on in their lives.

  19. I think it’s vital that our children know us as human beings, as well as parents. There’s not a person on Earth who hasn’t made a mistake, or done something they’ve regretted later.

    I have quite a lot to explain to my just-turned-six year old daughter. I’m hoping it will all come out, in age-appropriate bits and pieces.

    The subject of family and biology and sex has already been covered. I was married to her biodad (who is in and out of her life, unfortunately) and we broke up when I was pregnant with her. She’s got a very strong relationship with my ex’s dad, her Grandpa. She’s beyond fascinated with all the complex ties and family relationships she has, and is capable of maintaining.

    My husband and I have both been married before, something I know will come up sooner or later. We’ve been together since the kiddo was 9 months old; she’s in our wedding pictures, she’ll figure it out eventually 😀

    She calls my husband Daddy, her choice. He’s always been there, and they love each other very much. The biggest problem I have is that when my kid and my ex husband visit, he insists that she call my husband by his first name. So far she’s absolutely refused, and I’m proud of her for sticking to her guns.

    It’s so very difficult to attempt to coparent when the “CO” part doesn’t exist. Simply avoiding speaking negatively about her dad or his family while she’s around isn’t going to be enough one of these days. She’s going to want more answers about our divorce than I can give her without letting him slip that I left because he was a total D-bag.

    Any suggestions?

    • How about something like, “things just weren’t right, and I thought it was more important for you to have happy parents than parents that were together but unhappy. But because of that I met and married daddy and we are very happy”.

      Obviously she might want more information, but keeping the focus on choosing happiness and the positives of the situation might keep her mind away from the less good parts of the story. I hope my advice is helpful. I’d love for someone who’s been in that sort of situation to weigh in!

      • As a child of parents that didn’t work out, I completely agree. My mom used to tell me every negative thought she had about my dad and as a child it was really hard and confusing. The child will be disappointed and hurt by an inconsistent parent but she won’t see him as that. She’ll still see him as her father and someone she loves and admires, no matter how d-baggy he really is. For me, being in that position made it impossible for me to be honest with my mom about the emotions I was really feeling about my father’s let down’s and inconsistency. It left me constantly defending him when I really just wanted to be sad he wasn’t being the man I needed him to be. As an adult, he is still inconsistent and my mother will still ask about him and then end every conversations with, “well I told you so but you’re the one that insists on talking to him.” It sucks.

        As a single mom, it’s really hard to keep a positive dialogue going about a parent that’s hurt you and your kid. My son has never met his father but he still asks about him and says he loves him. It is so difficult not to have a verbal diarrhea moment about how lousy that guy is but I try really hard to keep up a party line of, “well, your father and I were really young when you came to me and even though we both love you, we just didn’t love each other. What’s important is I’m here for you and I will always be here for you. You have a big family and we all love you most in the world.”

        • I just wanted to add to this part of the conversation, as another grown-up-kid of divorce. I was 9 when my parents divorced (I’m 28 now), and my mother was not kind to my father and vice-verse.

          A huge problem with this kind of talk, which I think is true, is that when you insult the other parent to the child, you are insulting half the child.

          I don’t know if that made sense…but it’s something else to think about…Please keep in mind that I don’t have kids, so I hope I’m not butting in too much.

        • Another grown-up child of divorce here. I want to second the idea of not insulting the other parent. My mother has never been kind about my father. He and I are a lot alike. Every insult my mother threw out about my father could have directly applied to me.
          Oh, and I don’t care how much any parent regrets marrying/being with the other parent, saying “I should never have married your father/mother” to your child is NEVER appropriate. The child is a product of that marriage, and that child WILL hear: “I regret that you were ever born.”

    • My mother NEVER spoke badly of my father, but I don’t especially feel that that was OK. There will be a time when your child becomes aware of what kind of person he is and THAT will be confusing because YOU have never said a harsh word!
      There is a big difference between badmouthing out of spite, for tactical reasons (to drive a wedge etc) and simply being honest. It does not have to be extremely detailed. My children know that I have not seen my dad for over 20 years, and they know that he was not a good man, but they do not know the details – probably never will.

  20. Everybody has said pretty much anything I would have said but I would like to add that I think if you’re going to be open about your life be consistently open. My parents waited until I was 17 to tell me about a half-sister and it messed me up. As a parent I see how they thought they were waiting until I “could understand” but as a teen I was like, “Well shit, I guess my parents could be anybody because they’re liars.”

  21. It depends on the situation up for discussion and the personality of the kid involved. When I was 19ish and exploring drugs, my dad sat down and told me about his drug experiences. ANd that he still smoked up once in a while. He told me how he almost lost his life because of his involvement in that stuff. He knew I would get it. My brother was more of a loose canon though. He got way too into drugs much earlier. 15 years later, my dad still hasn’t told him. My dad doesn’t want to give the wrong impression and make it seem like drugs are ok, because to my paranoid-schizophrenic brother, they aren’t but he might see it that way. Not everyone needs to know everything. Just tell them what’s appropriate to their situation. Sometimes that might mean telling them nothing. But you have to think, are you telling to make yourself feel better? Or because it’s what will improve the life of your child?

  22. Everyone has had really awesome advice, the only thing I would like to add is: if your kid gives you an opening- go for it.

    My parents waited until I was 17 to tell me I had a half-sister. I know they were trying to wait until I could understand but I had asked them point-blank a few times and they denied it. When they finally came clean I was really alienated.

  23. I am thankful my mom was always very open with me about her light drug use when she was younger. She was ligthearted about telling me about smoking pot (when I was a young teen) and doing acid sometimes. I learned a responsible attitude from her – a little bit is probably ok, though it can also be very bad for certain people. Make sure to feel safe with the people you are around, keep doing well in school, etc. I always knew I could call home for a ride if I had too much to drink, but it was never necessary. It just made a huge diffeence to know that I could, and that my parents respected me enoug to make my own choices responsibly. Too many adults I was around were soooo ridiculous about drugs, if they told me how horribly evil pot was or that they never ever did any sort of drug I knew they were full of shit and wouldn’t have listened to any of their advice. My parents were open with me, I felt respected, ans when my mom sincerely asked me that I never smoke cigarettes (she has had a huge lifelong syuggle with them) I took that very much to heart.

  24. When I was young, my dad used to tell me that he used to drink too much booze and that booze kills brain cells, but lollipops help bring brain cells back. I’d save him all the lollipops (minus a few for me) from Halloween hauls and over lollipops, he’d tell me that if I ever got to liking booze too much, he’d be there for me with lollipops. When I got arrested for DWI in my early twenties, he picked me up from jail with a pack of lollipops. The hard stuff, he always explained to me in an age appropriate way and he never lied. Except maybe about the lollipops growing back braincells thing. And my parents felt it was necessary to explain that they’d had lives prior to being married, did what they wanted to do as single people, did what they wanted to as a couple, and then had a family – the lesson being that there is no rush to be with someone who doesn’t fit you and no rush to have children until you’re ready.

    All of these conversations happened organically through childrens questions. Someday, my daughter will ask about her half brother, who is 5 years older than her, and depending on how old she is, I will calmly explain that I had a prior relationship the resulted in me falling pregnant and I wasn’t ready to be a mom, so I found people who were.

  25. Well, I’d like to throw my .02 in here, if I may.
    I am 32 years old, about to have my first kid and what I know about my parents wouldn’t fill up three sheets of notebook paper.
    They are both shrouded in secrecy and lies. It’s crazy on levels I can’t explain.
    And the things I DO know, I found out in unpleasant ways. Like the fact that I have at least 4 half brothers and sisters – I met the first one in the 3rd grade…. we had the same teacher. I just thought he was this cool guy and then he and I start talking about my father and it turns out… that’s his father too. I was stoked, don’t get me wrong – I was being raised by my parents as an only kid. I finally had a brother! But I was too young to understand what it meant – an unfaithful marriage and a host of other things that are STILL even now coming to the surface. And my parents are LONG divorced.
    My husband and I have talked extensively about being honest with our kid. It’s imperative to me that they know things when they need to know them. She will know that she has an older sister. (My hubsters kid.) She will know that mommy used to have a wife. She will know about the dark and seedy location that mommy and daddy met in. LOL!
    Living with people that you realize you can’t trust because you don’t know them due to their lack of honesty and good communication really did a number on me and for years gave me trust issues that still flare up from time to time.
    Don’t just emotionally vomit all of your experiences on your kid, but when the moment comes, when the questions come, or if you see a teachable moment – take it and take it with honesty. They will appreciate it later.

    • Despite my dad’s struggle with mental illness through my childhood (and still), I have to say, I think he did a fantastic job of seeing teachable moments and only sharing what was developmentally appropriate.

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