Parents' own teen years - how honest to be?
WASHINGTON — My 16-year-old daughter Joanna gets invited to a lot of parties. The firm policy in our household is that she can go to any party as long as I make the phone call to make sure parents will be in attendance, that alcohol will not be served, and that there will be some semblance of crowd control.
Joanna treats this as the most unfair, irrational rule a parent could ever create. She's even tried the argument that I'm somehow encouraging her to hide information: "Why would I tell you about a party when the parents weren't going to be there? You're just pushing me to lie."
Yes, why would she tell me?
While the rule has been simple for me to arrive at, the enforcement of it - how to get my daughter to understand and obey it - is my biggest struggle.
What I haven't told her (STOP READING RIGHT HERE, JOANNA) is that the rule about parties is not just common sense, but that it's a rule based on personal experience. In other words (STOP READING RIGHT HERE, MOM AND DAD), I went to parties myself in high school, parties where the parents were out of town for the weekend, and where there were all sorts of illegal, illicit, and immoral activity: underage drinking, drinking and driving, marijuana smoking, sexual trysts. Just for the record, I wasn't the girl having sex in the master bedroom, but I did drink, excessively. I did get in cars with kids who had had way too much to drink.
Thus the rule - based on experience as much as on the wisdom of my advanced years.
Yet, my dilemma is this: To put the rule in a meaningful context, just how honest should I be with my children? (I also have an 18-year-old at college.) How much information about my teenage years should I impart to them? And will being completely honest with them encourage them to think, "Well, Mom did it. How could she possibly say anything if I do it, too?"
So for the time being, I'm keeping my mouth shut about my various adolescent rough spots. The interesting thing is that I haven't once had to lie or be evasive, because neither of my children has ever asked.
Every once in a while, my mother will joke about my string of motley high school boyfriends or about the fact that I was "difficult" in more ways than one, but she never offers details (not that she knows everything), and my kids don't seem to want to pursue it.
Interestingly, most of my friends seem to have unconsciously adopted the same policy of "don't ask, don't tell." I'm sure my friends' children have no idea which of their parents met at a skinny-dipping party, or which ones were fairly aggressive shoplifters, or which had to deal with sexually transmitted diseases. Today, these same parents are as loving and conservative (or nearly) as our own parents were, and have raised teenagers who seem to be responsible but fun-loving. One friend has told her son all about her drug-taking, war-protesting, free-loving days. I'm not at all sure he has benefited from the information. He's had a rougher adolescence than most. I wonder if his mom's "over-information" gave him permission to be more experimental than other kids.
A younger colleague at work asked me, "What do you think you could teach them if you did talk about your teen years? Don't you think teenagers have to figure it out for themselves?"
That seems sensible, especially for kids who have good judgment, but it certainly doesn't mean I get to take my hands off the wheel. I think the real answer is to be honest with them if and when they ask directly, and to be vigilant and loving the rest of the time. It may be a seat-of-the-pants parenting strategy, but so far, it's worked as well as anything else I've seen.
• Debra Bruno is assistant editor at Moment, a magazine of Jewish politics, culture, and religion.