Reader Question: How Much Do I Tell My Kids About My Past?

Reader Question of the Week
Here’s the scenario: you have quite a past–whether it’s drug use or alcohol or past sexual activity–and then you got married and you cleaned up your life. But now your kids are growing up, and you’re trying to teach them to do the right thing. How do you start telling them about your past?

Every Monday I like to post a reader question and try to answer it, and today’s is one I’ve heard many variations of:

I have two teens (14 & 15) who like to push my buttons and test boundaries. They’re good kids, but I there’s a lot of tension with them. So now I’m wondering: what should I tell them about my past?

I’m not embarrassed by it because God did an amazing transformation of my life, but I already told my son just a little bit–that I smoked when I was a teen–and now whenever he wants to do something we don’t want him to do, he says, “but you smoked and you turned out okay.” And that was just smoking! What if I told him all the other things I did? It’s like he now feels like he has permission to do the things I did. How should I handle this?

That’s tough, isn’t it? Telling your kids about your past does open a huge can of worms. So here are a few of my thoughts, but I’d really like yours, too! So after you’ve read some of my thoughts, please leave yours in the comments as well!

How Much Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Past?

1. Secrecy Doesn’t Tend to Work Well

I’ve never found that secrets work well in a family. The kids pick up on it anyway, and you’re always tense that they’ll find out.

So I tend to be a big advocate of telling kids your story–at age appropriate levels, and with only the necessary detail (if you went too far with a boyfriend when you were 14, for instance, you don’t have to say EXACTLY what you did–only that you did too much.)

2. Remember that Your Story is Really God’s Story

I think we’re often embarrassed to tell our kids our story because it wasn’t pristine. Yet this is really a problem the early church didn’t face. In the early church (at least with the Gentile converts, not the Jewish converts), EVERYBODY had a past. Nobody had had a pristine pre-Christian life, and so they were able to say, “Thanks to God who saved me from so much!” They knew the difference between having God in your life and not having God in your life, and they were grateful.

And because everybody had the same messed up past, it wasn’t a big deal to talk about what God saved you from.

The problem today is that we’re trying to raise our kids to make good decisions from the start, and then if you didn’t, it’s like you’re giving them permission to do things you’d rather they wouldn’t.

But perhaps that’s because we’re still seeing living a Christian life in terms of our strength rather than God’s strength. Maybe we need to get back to the mindset of the early church, which basically said: it doesn’t matter what kind of past you had; what matters is what God did with it and how He redeemed you! If we frame our whole lives like that, then our stories become God’s stories.

I have a dear friend that I’ve known for several decades. I knew her when she first became a Christian–rather dramatically. She had hit rock bottom with drugs and relationships, and swore to God that if she made it through the night she’d follow Him. And she did! She stopped her lifestyle and did the most dramatic 180 turnaround I’ve ever seen. She is the most transparent worshiper in church, because she truly knows the meaning of grace.

She married a wonderful Christian man who DIDN’T have much of a past, and is raising a whole pile of teens now.

But she had never really shared with her teens the details of her past until someone else, who did know her past, asked her for advice. It all came out in front of her oldest, and her oldest really grieved. She knew that her mother had “a past”, but she didn’t know what it was. And she wanted to know the details. “How many men did you sleep with? What did you do?” Etc. etc. There were a lot of tears, and her daughter grieved for what her dad had missed out on, too.

It was an emotional time, and my friend didn’t share all the details. But she did bring it back to God. “That’s why I love Jesus, because I know what He did in my life, and He helped take away the shame.”

It’s not easy when your kids no longer see you as this perfect person to look up to. But maybe they were never supposed to in that way.

3. Let’s Always Talk About What God Has Done

If we frame it in terms of God–He rescued me, He helped me live with my scars, He gave me strength to quit drinking–then we do our kids a favour. We teach them, “Christianity is about a relationship, not rules.”

Then your story can’t give them permission to follow in your footsteps. If your child says,

But, Mom, you did all this stuff, and you turned out fine.

You can say,

No, I didn’t turn out fine. I still have scars. God has healed me, but the scars are still there. It leaves a mark on you. I suffered. And I don’t want you to do the same. God came and brought me out of the life I was in, but that doesn’t mean that I would have much rather avoided it altogether. I saw what it did, and I don’t want that for you.

And you can tell them about the scars. I think once a child is old enough–say 16 or 17–you can say, “it was really hard in our marriage to feel free sexually because my old boyfriends were always in the back of my mind, and I felt dirty,” (or however you want to word it or whatever sexual baggage you struggled with). I think telling our kids the truth is perfectly fine and healthy. And then you can say, “But God has worked in me and I understand the difference between real intimacy and just sex. And I know why God wants intimacy for us, and that’s what I want for you.”

The whole “you turned out fine” argument seems powerful, but it really does fall apart if you look at it. My mom had cancer 25 years ago, and she’s okay now. But she went through a lot of pain and a lot of fear and she still has physical struggles. Sure, you can turn out okay, but that doesn’t mean you’re as good as you could have been otherwise. So tell your kids the truth–and show them that God saved you anyway.

4. Swallow Your Pride

For a lot of us, this is the big issue. We like being that mom to look up to, and we’re worried that we’ll lose that if they know the truth. But there really isn’t room for pride in the Christian life. It’s about what God has done, not what you have done. You don’t really want your kids to think of you as this amazing, wonderful, perfect mom, as much as you want them to look at God and see a loving Father who wants to protect and guide them, do you?

Let’s let our kids want to walk in Jesus’ steps, not in our steps.

Those would be my thoughts, then–from an early age, let your kids know that God rescued you from a lot. As they get older, fill in some details (but not ALL. Your kids really don’t want to picture you in bed, for instance). And always, always say that it was God who rescued you, and it’s because of God (not your effort) that you have turned your life around.

But I’d love to hear from someone else who has to go through this. What did you tell your teen? And when? Let me know in the comments!

Comments

  1. Such wonderful advice! For years, I was so embarrassed that my personal testimony of God’s grace in my life involved a promiscuous past. But at some point, I realized that what mattered was the turnaround. Everyone has something in their past they aren’t proud of, and mine was pretty ugly. But it’s like a line from a devotional song I’ve always loved (“Something Beautiful”): “All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife. He made something beautiful out of my life.” For that reason, I sometimes re-read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which lists a bunch of sins along with the conclusion: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Were — past tense.

    I absolutely want to spare my children the heartache I went through, so I’ve been honest when they ask questions about what I’ve done. But I’ve also been honest about the pain I experienced, the regrets I’ve had, and the longing I have for something better in their lives.
    J (Hot, Holy & Humorous) recently posted…When My Marriage Seemed Hopeless, What Made Me Stay?My Profile

    • So true! I love those verses, too. If we’re embarrassed of our past, then we keep God’s power to ourselves, too, I guess, right? It’s hard to be vulnerable, but it is often the best way to show people God!

      Thanks for commenting, J. Love ya!

  2. I agree with you whole-heartedly. I have a sexual past that scarred me. I don’t lie to my kids, so I was open with my past when it seemed that my truth would help. I emphasized the ways I was damaged by my choices. While it wasn’t easy for me to share this part of my life with my kids, those were the conversations during which they heard my heart the most.

    During a conversation about one particular incident from my past, my daughter wept with me about my experience. It was an unexpectedly healing moment for me. God used my daughter to remind me that He, too, had wept with me, even as He had forgiven me.
    Chris recently posted…Take Up Your MatMy Profile

    • That’s really beautiful! I think God does act in these situations like that.

    • Just last night I faced a related situation that really threw me. Despite how open I have been about *my* past, my husband has not been open about his. My daughter asked me point-blank if my husband and I had sex before we were married. Being truthful for myself would have revealed a piece of my husband’s story that is not mine to tell. Until she asked me, it hadn’t occurred to me that my husband and I should have talked about how to handle this specific situation. I
      Chris recently posted…A 365 Day JourneyMy Profile

  3. Renee Greaner says:

    I love this post!! And you are right. We can tell our children and our grandchildren about our past. I am raising 3 of my young grandchildren and already I have used examples. It helps them to know that we are not perfect either. I let my boys know that even their mother made mistakes, and I made GRAND mistakes!! But through the Grace of God I came to peace with it. I tell them to LEARN from my mistakes because they will make their own in their life journey.

  4. Sheeba Fernandez says:

    What beautiful testimonies of God’s healing n restoration! My past is filled with abuse of every kind from verbal, physical, emotional n sexual n from that came a lot of bad choices of my own. I was in an abusive marriage for13 years. My kids saw my husband degrade me n treat me with disrespect time n again. Though I turned my life around n was following Jesus with all my heart I still carried the baggage of my past, filled with shame n grief. I tolerated a lot of abuse in my marriage thinking that I didn’t deserve any better. That’s all my kids ever saw a mother who didn’t have a voice who was humiliated n threatened time n again n a father who used God’s word n abused his authority as the head of the home. Finally one day I reached my breaking point n cried out to God from.my pit of hopelessness n despair. I didn’t want to live anymore n told God if he wud deliver me from this pit of abuse n depression then I wud serve him the rest of my life n wud never hestitate to share my story n tell others what he did for me. God did just that he have me boldness to walk out of my marriage. My ex trashed me to my kids everytime they went to his house but I wud always tell them to pray for their father n I wud pray for him as well during my prayer time. One day my 8 year old daughter told me, “Mamma, daddy always speaks bad about u but u never speak bad about him but u pray for him so I think ur right n he’s wrong.” That spoke volumes to me that the best messageI cud nbe to my kids is being the message itself. It doesn’t matter what my past is but what matters is the life I’m striving to live today in the midst of difficult challenges, that’s what my kids r watching, that’s what truly matters setting an example now before them if what it truly means to be a Christian. It means we r human n we will fail n fall but the luv n hrace of God is always there waiting to meet us at our point of failure! My kids were constantly told by my exs church, his parents n him that I’ve sinned becz I filed for divorce. They were constantly told I’m going to a wrong church n that I’ve back slided n I’m not going to make it in the rapture. They were constantly told how bad I am. I still taught them to firgive, pray n obey n honor their father as that’s what his word teaches children to do n they wud be blessed. I never told them all that their father did. God’s word says that he will vindicate us, he will fight for the oppressed n that vengeance is his. I was having a hard time with my 13 year old as he was completely turned against me by his father to the point he wanted to hit me one day during an argument n told me he hated me n wud hurt me bad one day. Once again I took it to God n asked him to fight my battle, I refused to trash my kids father, I refused to destroy them in this evil fight to provemy iinnocence. Long story short, a few later my 13 year old found my testimony I had written to share at my Celebrate Recovery group n that changed his whole perspective. He read all about my past, my nad choices, the abuse in my marriage n how God turned all that satan meant for evil for my good n his glory. He now sees that his mom is definitely not perfect n that we live in a fallen world but he also knows we serve a God who can restore n heal us no matter how bad our past. My teenager went from being a mad, angry, hateful boy to a loving, compassionate tender hearted young man over night. All becz he saw that his mom has seen a lifetime of abuse, pain n also faced consequences of her bad choices but is striving to do the right thing, striving to show them by actions more than just mere words what Christianity truly means n that their heavenly father is nothing like their earthly father. They r seeing that tho my earthly father n their earthly father has failed them, their heavenly father has n will never fail us. They r seeing that God is a God of luv, mercy n compassion n tho we fail him he does not reject us or abandon us but is waiting to luv, heal n restore us.
    Sorry for sharing so much but my point is that no matter how ugly ur past if u make it about Jesus n tell ur kids about what he has done for u n just how much he luvs us inspite of our bad choices then u will only do ur kids an advantage cz then they get the real picture of who God really is n just how much he luvs his children n how he longs to bless us inspite of all our failures!

  5. I am not sure how I feel about this topic. My husband was a man of extreme morals and integrity until at the age of 29 when he found out his father had cheated on his mother for the entire 35 year marriage. I think it rocked his foundation and he actually became like his father in our marriage. He did things that he never would have considered after he found out about his dad. I don’t think it was necessary for him to know all the details.

    • I’d agree–some details are better off kept to oneself. At the same time, I think knowing one’s past is important, even from a spiritual perspective, because this does have an impact. That’s just a really difficult situation. I hope that your husband has turned back around!

  6. “and her daughter grieved for what her dad had missed out on, too.”

    If she was so transformed by Christ and married a good Christian man, what did he miss out on? Did she not give him her best in the marriage?

    • I think it’s just difficult to marry someone who isn’t a virgin, especially when you’ve saved yourself. I know from walking through this with family members who have married those with pasts, it is hard. But you have to grieve it before you’re married and come to terms with it then.

      • Is hard more because of “ghosts” in the virginal spouse’s mind or more because of actual sexual problems from the non-virginal spouse?

        • I think it’s just honest to goodness grief. You want it to be something special you share with only one person, and when the other person didn’t wait, it is hard. It’s a dream you have to grieve. It can also cause problems later on once you’re married with the spouse who did have a past, but the other spouse does have something to grieve, and it’s best grieved and dealt with BEFORE the wedding.

          • For me, I just didn’t realize before the wedding how much more painful and personal his past would feel than it did before he was “mine.” He was nothing but honest with me beforehand, and I thought I had accepted it, but now that we are married it seems to rear its head much uglier than it did before– not all the time, mind you, but just every now and then.

  7. This i such a difficult topic.I m not yet in this phase of life but it was kind of interesting to see you answer those tough questions.Thank you :)

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  8. matilda says:

    Thank you for this answer, it’s something that’s been bothering me a lot and I like the way this handles it. In my case, despite going too far with some college boyfriends, I was still mostly virginal until my late 20s when I got tangled up with a sexual predator whose stated goal was to ruin me for other men. It was especially traumatizing since I had always had the “no fornication” part down, but what I didn’t have down was acquiescence – not to do what everyone wants me to do all the time. Since then I have dealt with thinking that I never want to get married or have kids.

    If there is a silver lining, it’s that after that incident I became much more sexually pure mentally. I used to like fantasizing and whatnot (sorry if that’s TMI) and see above about college boyfriends. Now I’m not into cultural-norm dating at all and probably won’t kiss anyone until marriage. But it is hard knowing that I have even more marriage liabilities than I did before. I think the key is to keep Christ in the center and not to repeat any parenting mistakes with our kids.

    • Yep–keep Christ in the center! And He really can redeem even our thought life, even if it’s a slow process.

  9. Alchemist says:

    I’ve no experience with this subject, but Jamie from The Very Worst Missionary blog has two great posts about talking to your teenage sons about sex. She also had a promiscuous past before coming to Christ.

  10. Loved the article! But I was wondering about what to tell your children if you did things (disobey parents, go places you weren’t supposed to go, do things you knew you weren’t supposed to do) even though you already were a Christian and even worse, a pastor’s kid? The good thing is I married my only boyfriend, but how do I tell them to wait after marriage when I didn’t?

    • That’s a great question! I think it would be the same–you tell them that you made mistakes, and that God convicted you, and He helped you to change, and it’s so much better to obey and do things right. It’s still God who made the difference, and you can give them that warning: just because you believe doesn’t mean you won’t be tempted and doesn’t mean you’ll do everything right. But that’s all the more reason to be careful. Sometimes when we are Christians we aren’t careful because we figure, I’m right with God anyway. But it’s so much more than that, and you can tell them how your relationship with God changed when you started seeing it as a true relationship? Does that sound good?

  11. With my oldest facing middle school this year and all the drama that it brings I decided that when the times come I want to by upfront with her. As you said it’s more than just the number of sexual partners, falling in love at an early age with a much older man, it’s the pain, the regrets, the betrayals and everything else that comes with it. We tend to forget that as we get older that teens are little adult humans, they feel so much so strongly and they can tell when we are holding back.

    I want my kids to know they can come to me with everything and the only way they are going to do that is if I share with them, as much as is age appropriate
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  12. Thanks for responding, Sheila. That sounds good. I have tried being more open with my teens (14 & 12) than my parents were with me about these “taboo” subjects. It helps because when they see or hear things going on in the world today they feel safe enough to come to me to ask about them knowing they won’t get their head chewed off just for saying the words (sex, rape, gay, lesbian, abuse, etc.) like I did when I was growing up.

    • Oh, goodness. That is tough! It sounds like you’re taking a much better approach with your kids, and I really do find that openness rarely backfires. People crave authenticity and honesty. They really do. Best wishes to you!

      • Oh, and if you haven’t read it already, you may enjoy my daughter’s article about why she didn’t rebel. She talks about how we didn’t have rules as much as we just talked about stuff. It sounds from reading between the lines that your parents had a lot of rules but not relationship, and maybe that contributed a bit to your choices.

  13. Just read the blog you recommended. I loved reading your daughter’s input. You make some good points. My parents (father, particularly) did a couple of those things right, but he almost always focused more on being a pastor and on the church than on spending time with us as a family. We were always in the spotlight of church members, so he always expected us to be almost perfect and that put a lot of pressure on my siblings and me. We all turned out really well (we all still go to church, have never drank or smoked, don’t curse, all still married, one RN, one pharmasist, and I’m a stay at home mom), but I’m sure our father/child relationship could have been a lot better.
    I’m so thankful to have come a long way from those days and to have learned from my parents’ mistakes so that I can be a better parent to my kids and a better wife to my husband.

    • My kids swear they will never marry a pastor, which makes me sad, because I think that pastors are so needed and do such great work! But they’ve seen so many friends in the same situation as you growing up. There’s one family in particular that did it right, and all the kids had great relationships with their parents, so it certainly is possible. But my girls are too scared by the thought. There’s no doubt that pastors face a lot of pressure that “normal” people don’t, and that’s a shame. (I also hope that my girls change their minds if God brings a great pastor into their lives! :) )

  14. purplecandy says:

    I am glad to read your advices and see that they are not too different from what i am hoping to do with my kids. There is something that disturbs me, though, it’s that my first daughter was born before my husband and i got married. I teach her that God wants us to be married before having babies (she’s still too young to talk about sex) but i guess it won’t be long before she asks why we didn’t. I dont want to downplay the disobedience to God, but at the same time, i don’t want her to think that she is a ‘mistake’ or anything like that. How do you think i should talk about it to her when she’s still very young ?

    • That’s a GREAT question! Let me put that up on my Facebook page and see what others say. But my quick thoughts would be: God had you planned from the very beginning, and blessed us with you. Even though we weren’t following God, God used it for good, and now we all know Him! Or something like that?

      • Also the act wasn’t wrong, but the timing of it was(i.e. not waiting until marriage) but you weren’t mistake because God knew of you when you were being formed….As so many children are products of fornication, they can’t all be mistakes…. or something like that.
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      • purplecandy says:

        Thank you! This is something i have been thinking and praying about for some time now, i’m glad to have the opportunity to read wise advices on your facebook page, and to be ready when that question comes :)

  15. Lots of people have told my husband that he has a calling to a ministry (still unsure which one, though he is a servant, always willing to lend a hand to get things done at church). Having lived through what I did, hearing people say that to us, makes me shudder and say no way!!! I would not want my kids to live through what I’ve lived, but in my heart I know that if it is God’s will, He can change my heart about this. :)

  16. No teens here, 3 children age 7, 5, and 3. But I have tried to admit to them when I’ve done wrong and ask them to forgive me if I’ve hurt their feelings in some way. Just this morning the littlest one got a spanking from Dad and was pretty upset. I took the opportunity to tell him that even Mommy and Daddy do wrong stuff too, and that we all have to ask Jesus to forgive us. Hopefully they all grow up with the understanding that everyone fails and everyone needs forgiveness from God.

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