Many parents try to shield their children from the wilder, stranger, or more upsetting stories from their pre-parenting lives. But is there a right time to tell these tales to kids? And what do kids get from them?
The former question has gotten a lot of play in the Times recently, with both experts and readers weighing in. Some come down on the side of disclosure — "If our son is going to make it in this world, he has to have a well rounded understanding of all possible experiences" — others on that of discretion — "we should not expect to open up completely to our children." But they don't really discuss what kids are supposed to do with the information. How are you supposed to react when your parents tell you about their youth?
When my parents told me about their college days, which they started doing when I was pretty young, I reacted with a mixture of awe and befuddlement. I learned that I would be on my own someday, and when I was, I could do cool things like take a road trip or live with my friends. I could also do totally weird things — like, for instance, slick back my hair like a greaser and go roller-skating. My mom presented this to me as a fun anecdote when I was about ten, and I was totally nonplussed. Later, I reasoned that she must have been high. Later still, she told me that she actually did the whole greaser-skating thing stone-cold sober, and now it makes less sense than it ever did.
Of course, if I ever have kids, they're probably going to find a lot of my wild-n-crazy stories confusing — or just underwhelming. Few things age worse than the "oh my god I had the craziest night" tale, and there are few worse tellers of it than parents, who are by definition the least cool people on the planet. There are plenty of things that impress me about my parents, but few of them are of the wacky-antics variety, and if I ever impress any offspring of my own, I bet it won't be with the story of how I wore a fake mustache to a fondue restaurant. Still, I'll probably tell that story and many others, because my parents' stories — roller skates and all — helped to humanize for me the shadowy presences they were before I was born.
Especially when you're very young, it's easy to imagine that your parents' lives revolve around you. They came into being to raise you and tend to your needs, and whoever they were before you came along doesn't really matter. Knowing about your parents' earlier lives — whether crazy or mundane — helps you recognize that you're not the center of the universe, and that parents are people with lots of life experiences that have nothing to do with their kids. This realization is good for not growing up into a narcissistic asshole, and it's also good, I'd wager, for children who will themselves become parents someday. The recognition that you don't have to give up your own history and identity when you have children may well be helpful for moms and dads, especially those coming of age in an environment of heavily involved parents. So really, we shouldn't just be asking what and how parents should tell their kids, but how kids should listen, and what they should learn.
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