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 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!
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 wouldn’t 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!