"What Do I Say When My Kids Ask Me About My Past?" | Mary Beth Bonacci | Ignatius Insight
Whatever you tell them, beware of the "Happily Ever After" Syndrome
I had a lovely dinner last night with five really wonderful women.
The women were all mothers who belong to a book club, and they invited me over to discuss the new book I'm writing, which will be very much like my book Real Love, but geared toward answering parents' and educators' questions.
What I wanted from these women were their specific questions. After twenty-plus years of giving talks to parents, I have a pretty good idea what is on their minds. But in Real Love I used actual questions from actual teens, and I want to do the same in this book. And so these lovely women invited me to spend an evening chatting with them.
It was a really nice discussion. They had a lot of questions--and a lot of insights--on a wide range of chastity-related topics. But a majority of the evening was spent discussing the one questions that strikes dread in the hearts of parents everywhere: "What do I say when my children ask me about my past?"
I can see where it would be scary. Parents pride themselves on maintaining honest relationships with their kids. They want those kids to make better decisions than they did. So should they share information about the mistakes they made and the consequences of those mistakes, hoping that their children will benefit from the information? Or does that make them hypocrites, expecting their children to live up to a standard that they themselves failed?
I usually answer the question with another question: When you were a teenager, did you ever ask your parents about their pre-marital sex lives? The answer is usually a horrified "Oh no--I would have never dreamed of asking them a question like that."
Why wouldn't you ask your parents? Because it's a personal question. Because the subject dwells in the land on the other side of The Divide Between Parents and Kids that none dared breach in my day.
Maybe there is something to be learned here.
I know parents today want to be closer to their kids, and that's not a bad thing. But there need to be limits. And those limits include information about their parents' sex lives.
Why? Because sex is private. It's sacred. Parents have a certain right to privacy in their own relationship. It shouldn't be a big open book that the entire family can peruse at will.
Some parents think it's better to share their own personal mistakes with their kids. They figure they'll explain how those mistakes hurt them, the consequences they lived as a result, and their kids can benefit from the experience and not make the same mistakes.
Here's the problem with that picture. Kids aren't like we are. Their cognitive processing is much more concrete. They aren't as likely to "get" abstract concepts or descriptions. They are much more impressed by what they see now than they are by stories of things that happened long ago. You can describe your past suffering in exquisite detail. And yet, what does your child see? Probably a relatively attractive, relatively financially successful parent who seems overall to be doing fine. And they think, "I can do what Mom did and it'll all turn out okay in the end."
I call it the Happily Ever After Syndrome. And it's very, very dangerous.
Of course, there are situations where a parent has to explain past mistakes. A birthday that doesn't line up with a wedding anniversary. A half-sibling. Any public, obvious or easily-discovered information obviously needs to be dealt with. In that case, parents need to do the best they can. If a child was born as a result of the ""mistake", and especially when talking to that child, affirm his or her worth and make sure he or she understands that mistake was the circumstances or the timing, not the child. Emphasize the hardships and how they would have been alleviated if the timing or circumstances had been different. And then affirm the child again. And again. And again.
Aside from that, I strongly recommend that parents strive to create and environment where children understand that there is a certain sphere of privacy around their parents' marriage--not because there's anything bad about it, but because of the sacredness of their intimacy.
The next logical question is about hypocrisy. Am I a hypocrite if I expect my children to live up to a standard that I failed myself? No. The definition of a hypocrite is someone who advocates one thing while doing the opposite. In other words, you would be a hypocrite if you expected your children to live chastity while you were living unchastely in your own personal life. That's very different from having made mistakes, having lived the consequences and not wanting your children to face those same consequences.
Look, the goal here is more than just to keep your teenagers from having sex. It is to instill in them a sense of the beauty, the meaning and the sacredness of marital sexual union.
Don't just tell them about it. Live it.
This column originally appeared on RealLove.net on January 10, 2008. Click here to read more of Mary Beth Bonacci's columns.
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Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.
Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.
Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.
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