You don’t get to our age without baggage. In our wanton youth and well beyond it, many of us acted disreputably. We broke the law, treated some people shamefully, and behaved so recklessly we’re lucky to be alive. But do we want our children to know this? How much of the dark side of our lives do we share with our children now they’re adults or almost there?
Even the story of When I first Met Your Ma, as the Paul Kelly songs goes, might have to be airbrushed if the circumstances weren’t entirely kosher but involved two-timing and heartbreak.
I recently watched the powerful SBS drama Better Man about the Australian Van Tuong Nguyen, executed in Singapore in 2006 for trying to smuggle heroin into Melbourne to pay off family debts. It reminded me of a friend’s confession she’d once smuggled some marihuana into Singapore; then my husband said he’d had a friend who’d smuggled drugs into Australia. This was all back in the late 70s. Our friends weren’t hanged. They weren’t caught. They went on to be successful professionals and good parents. They wouldn’t dream of telling their now-adult children about this episode in their lives.
I wonder whether this natural reticence explains why children can never really know their parents. We tend to sanitise our past and so must remain a bit of a mystery to the next generation. Our old and best friends, on the other hand, know what we’re capable of; they were there for some of it. They see today’s upstanding citizen in proper perspective.
When my boys were young I was determined to keep from them their father’s past as a motor bike enthusiast. I considered motor bikes lethal weapons (by this time he agreed). I didn’t want motor bikes to seem the least bit acceptable. We fudged for years but eventually had to come clean. It was fortuitous we could tell the boys in all honesty an accident caused by a driver running a red light had ended their dad’s Easy Rider days. And this was how it usually ended with motor bikes.
But the big issue for our generation was our drug-taking past. How much of it were we prepared to admit to children growing up in what we considered more perilous times? We were products of a more benign era, we told ourselves, when marihuana, the drug of choice, was much less potent than now. Faced with young children who were puritans thanks to excellent anti-tobacco education at primary school, few parents admitted the truth of their own experimentation: yes drugs had tipped a mate or two into psychosis but drugs had been a source of pleasure.
On a camping trip when our sons were aged about 10 and 13 we were lulled by the idyllic ambience – blazing fire, starry sky, and sweet harmony – into an almost-honest answer to a question from the younger son, the one we later referred to as Taliban. “Did you ever smoke marihuana, Dad?” he asked sweetly. Avoiding the Bill Clinton line (never inhaled) my husband replied, “Just once.”
The admission proved fatal. For months after, any attempt to discipline the younger son would be met with the riposte that his father had been a lawbreaker and drug-taker. It taught us that honesty was not always the best policy when it came to revealing ourselves to our children.
As children grow into adulthood, the issue of “too much information” can still apply. Many parents who survived the early days of sexual liberation and women’s liberation have a complex history of infidelities, abortions, even secret children given up for adoption that they might prefer to keep from their offspring. It can be repugnant for children of any age to be confronted with the reality of a parent’s sex life, even a former one.
But when I reflect on my father’s hidden life, I realise how much I would have preferred to know more about him sooner. It was not just his experience as a 17-year-old in World War 11 (he lied about his age to enlist) that he kept to himself. Apparently, as the Japanese retreated from the Indonesian islands he saw horrifying things that affected him deeply. Through shame he also concealed his rakish behaviour while still a soldier – going AWOL to live with a girl in Kings Cross, and as a result being punished by the army with a spell behind bars.
When I wrangled this story out of him not long before he died in his 70s, I hooted with delight and told him I was chuffed he’d been such a rebel. He was surprised and pleased I approved.
I guess there can be a right time and a wrong time to spill the beans. Even in their 20s, our children might prefer limited knowledge of their parents’ hoary past; and ask no questions. Maybe a decade later when they’re less self-absorbed, they might genuinely want to know who we really are and how we got there.
In the meantime, many of us parents with 20-somethings at home can know much more about our adult children than our parents ever knew about us. And whether this knowledge breaches some natural law of privacy between the generations, or brings us closer, is what I’m still working out.
How much do you think we should tell our children? Please click on ‘Comment’.
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