The dilemma of how much should truthfully be shared with your teenagers about your past is tricky.
When our children were younger, my husband and I generally adopted a policy of honesty, because the stories relevant to them were funny and innocent. Stories of things gone wrong, social blunders, or moments of embarrassment that showed our imperfections and illustrated that you can make mistakes, learn from them, and move on.
However, as children become teenagers, the situations they face, and consequently the stories they are interested in, are more clandestine.
How much should you share? Many parents have “been there and done that” to some degree: alcohol, drugs, or other risky or wild behavior.
Are you a hypocrite if you don’t fess up to your teens about your past behavior, and if you force them to obey rules that you did not obey? Or are you authorizing behavior on their part if you do tell them about your past behavior?
When deciding how much to reveal, remember that teens formulate their own value systems by looking at the adults around them, especially their parents, to see what the adults say they value, how they act, and how closely these adults behave in accordance with the values they claim. That's right; they are watching us and learning from us ALL THE TIME!
While there's no right or wrong answer, here are some things to at least consider when deciding how honest you will be:
Total honesty is often not in the best interest of teens. “Do as I say, not as I do (or did)” does not work. In fact, it's likely to backfire. Not only is sharing some of our misbehaviors with them unlikely to convince them not to do the same; it could well encourage them to try, thinking “If she did that and got away with it, and survived, then I can too.”
Not discussing every detail about your past is not lying. You can give your children an edited version of any acting out and risk-taking you may have done. Remember that the longer they hold off on experimentation the better, as the likelihood of harm or addiction are reduced as children wait to try drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and sex. You can tell them more of the truth later, when the fears and consequences of early experimentation are past.
Teens don't learn from our mistakes. It's a fallacy to think so. Not only do they have a hard time identifying and empathizing with us because they can't imagine us being young, but we don’t want to give them what they may interpret as sanction to make their own bad decisions. Also, they believe they are invincible and immune from the consequences of risky behavior. “It won’t happen to me" is the most likely reaction.
It is possible for people to have an honest relationship without full disclosure. Your child will not share all the details of their life as they mature, and you are entitled to keep details of your life private too. It is a way to model to teens the importance of personal boundaries.
If there is interest in your past, chances are something is bothering your teenager. Be happy they are looking to you for support! Use the opportunity to focus the discussion on them, not you. For example, “Why do you ask? Do you know of kids who are smoking?” What you did in the past is less important to them than how they are going to deal with the situation presented to them now.
Conclusion? Do what feels right for you and your family, but recognize that lies of omission are OK. Focus on their current issues rather than on your past - you'll have a much more engaged audience and productive conversation.
Remember your ultimate parental goals: to keep you child safe, to help them develop good judgement and healthy values, and to be an unwavering source of love and support during their tumultuous teenage years.