Do As I Say, Not As I Have Done
Here's how to be effective in helping our kids make better choices than we did.
The other day, I was sitting in a session of LoveEd, a Catholic-based program designed to teach sexuality. My wife had spearheaded a push to bring it to families in our schools and others, as we are constantly trying to find ways to connect healthy living with holy living. As the website purports, “LoveEd helps parishes and schools empower parents to teach both the theology and science of human sexuality within the context of God’s plan for love and life. It helps young people discover the beauty and the purpose of their sexuality, which is fully articulated in Catholic teaching. LoveEd doesn’t just teach the facts of life, but the meaning of life.”
But as I was sitting there with my son, it dawned on me that in many different ways, I and other parents were likely promoting ideas that looked different from choices we had made. Whether it was through divorce, infidelity, premarital sex or other sexual indiscretions, we as parents were working hard as a collective body to emphasize that no matter what we had done, we felt that this was the way that God (and we) were calling our offspring to live.
This is a common, yet feared situation that occurs with parents all the time. Whether it is in regard to drug/alcohol use, academic work, occupational endeavors, relationships or many other circumstances, so often we as parents find ourselves advising (or at least desiring) that our kids take a different course than we did. Yet in doing so, there is an internal angst that arises, not just in knowing that we are advocating for something that we ourselves didn’t choose, but also in understanding just how to go about doing this in an effective way—one in which our youth won’t see us as a conformist, or even worse, a hypocrite.
Given this, a few considerations are worth broaching if we are going to be effective in helping our kids make better choices than we did.
The first one involves timing, development and details. Before we ever enter a sensitive discussion, we must first discern whether our youth are ready for the topic, and whether we are ready to open ourselves to the topic, too. It is critical that a parent prepare for what he or she will say (either through personal reflection and/or discussion with trusted peers or family members) as the adage about “first impressions” holds some truthfulness in this domain. Also, just because kids ask questions doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready for the entire answer. There is nothing wrong with parents providing a brief, honest response that includes “we will talk more as you get older.”
Even if the timing is right, and our kids are developmentally at a stage where they are ready for a fuller discussion, parents should also know that they can speak honestly and influentially without needing to reveal every sordid detail from their past. In fact, revealing too much can actually be distracting or even harmful, as children may struggle to deal with the images that come as a result. This past year, John Halliganspoke at our high school alma mater about his son, Ryan, who had committed suicide after being a victim of cyberbullying. In his mission to save others from this plight and to create a healthier school environment, he opened the discussion to almost every detail—except how the suicide occurred. It was a potential distraction and a possible mode of vicarious traumatization that he rightly felt had more potential for harm than good. Similarly, kids don’t necessarily need to know how many sexual partners or different drugs you tried; what they may need to know are the critical pieces of how and why these ill-advised situations occurred.
Beyond issues of timing, development and detail, parents should give serious consideration to how they tell the story of their indiscretions. Although often of a good intent, a parent who describes these decisions as being awful or in a state of “having lost my mind,” or just dismisses them altogether, potentially risks two things. One, it invalidates that most of the time, many choices occurred because of various internal and external factors, all of which culminated in a choice (or choices) that felt right or felt good at the time. But if parents simply “write off” prior choices as being poor or completely ill-conceived, they lose an opportunity to talk through thoughts, emotions, and situational factors that may be critical in helping their youth make a better choice. For example, if a mother who had sex early and often is encouraging her daughter to approach her sexuality differently, it is important to acknowledge unaddressed factors such as academic obstacles, parent’s divorce, early physical development that may have increased temptations to seek out a physical connection with a boy—even when she knew it wasn’t the best choice. By being real with her daughter about these life challenges, it provides a rich opportunity to discuss how the mother and daughter can work together to mitigate adversities currently present in the daughter’s life in encouraging more holy and healthy practices.
In addition to addressing potential risk factors, the other reason parents should avoid using the “I wasn’t thinking” approach is that it potentially alienates the son or daughter if he or she ends up making similar choices in the future. If parents describe their past decisions as awful or irrational, then it is unlikely that a son or daughter will seek help through them if they end up making similar decisions. Although we all want to shelter our kids from poor decisions, the reality is that true “shelters” are places you can keep coming back to for safety and security, especially when storms occur. Therefore, it is important to teach and reinforce right and wrong, but not unintentionally call your child’s sanity into question if they make a poor decision.
Finally, like many parenting endeavors, the need for humility permeates this entire discussion. Parenting is the most humble profession that exists, and never more than when it comes to advocating for behavioral ideals that we ourselves may not have embraced. Humility in these situations might sound something like this. “You know, I am really glad that we are getting a chance to talk about [enter topic] because it is one that I struggled with when I was younger [insert appropriate details]. I wish I would have had a chance to talk with my parents in this way, and that we could have worked together so that I could have found ways to be happier, healthier and holier than I was. I realize now just how important it is, and how much better I feel about myself in taking this route, and I am excited that we are working together so it can happen for you.”
In the end, the story of our lives is the most authentic, impactful thing our children will ever know. Sometimes, the details of these stories provide great comfort for us because they provide readily available material to reinforce raising our children in a particular way. But sometimes, the darker details of our days bear promise in the tale that they tell—a real-life “lesson learned.” But in this case, we are not talking about lecturing or moralizing. We are talking about understanding how and why things happened to us so that we can help our kids navigate a new pathway without traveling down that same treacherous road.