Angela used to tell her 15-year-old son everything about growing up in the late 1960s: the drugs she took, the blokes she slept with, the protests she took part in. Now she’s not sure it was such a good idea.
She says: “By telling him about my student days I was trying to point out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that there were casualties. But I think perhaps he didn’t hear that bit, and I worry that I may have given him permission to try anything. And now, if I ever question his behaviour, he can just turn round and say, ‘It’s not as bad as what you used to do’.”
Most parents believe in being honest with their children. After all, good family relationships are grounded in mutual trust. But there is a big difference between being open and giving your kids too much information.
Leading psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans, author of What About the Children? (Bantam Press), advocates discretion until children are grown up. She says: “If a parent had a fairly rumbustious youth it’s probably best not to tell children about it until they’re about 18, when they have been through their own adolescent development and got their feet on the ground.
“Above all, young adult children need to feel safe, that they are in good parenting hands. They need boundaries and they need to respect us. They’re not going to feel safe if they think their flesh and blood behaved like lunatics.”
Parents also have to examine their own motives. If there’s any suggestion of showing off, of wanting to get down with the kids, don’t do it. It can be tempting to try to prove that you weren’t always as boring as they think you are now, that you were a punk or a hippie or an anarchist, and that our generation was just as outrageous as theirs. But face it: we aren’t in their club and we shouldn’t try to be.
Evans is firm: “It is absolutely essential that parents are not their children’s friends. We are their parents. Parents need to keep their dignity and not get too pally with their children. They don’t want to see us dancing and they don’t want us bragging either! And they don’t want to know the details of their parents’ sex lives, although it’s fine to talk about people we went out with or fell in love with.”
There are also special circumstances when it’s good to be completely frank about the past, even with younger teenagers. If there’s a crisis, for example, because your 17-year-old is worried he’s got an STD or your 16-year-old is scared she might be pregnant, it can be reassuring for them to know that you were once in a similar boat. It really helps to feel that they are not the only one to go through it, that you’re not judgemental and you know what to do.