How Much Should We Tell Our Teens About Our Bad Choices In High School?

I was a typical teenager circa 1980. I stole packs of cigarettes from the Marlboro Light carton on top of the fridge. I experimented with weed and drank enough that I feel lucky to have never run afoul of fate or the law. When I wasn’t running the streets, I was busy hiding my shenanigans from my parents with varying degrees of success.

Now, when I reflect on the highlight reel of my youth through the parental lens, I freak the freak out.

There should be a Serenity Prayer for parents in this stage of life:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept that

the apple might not fall far from the tree;

the courage to sniff out a lie

and the wisdom to sleep with one eye open.”


One of the trickiest parts of this parenting gig is preventing kids from making the same mistakes we made without putting the War and Peace edition of our escapades on full display in order to accomplish it. So, the question boils down to this: When and how much do we tell our kids about our teenage dabbling? This query smacked me right upside the head recently after my high school junior attended a session on marijuana use and its dangers. I was happy that he was actually talking to me about this because—teen boys- but I steeled myself for the query that was sure to follow.

And when he asked about my experiences, I spoke the truth. Sort of.

My mind drifted back to dark basements, Fleetwood Mac and the pungent odor from a joint hanging in the air despite our efforts to fan the smoke out the open window. We thought we were so smooth.

College students partying in dorm

I’m not sure people even say “joint” anymore but I tried to talk to my son in terms he would understand. I was honest and said I didn’t like the way we all just checked out after a good smoke. Lack of motivation was strong unless we were foraging for food, then we were plenty motivated. I made sure he knew that my overall experience was sort of, meh. Not worth all the trouble of getting caught.

I explained that there was no legal marijuana when I was growing up, but there was still plenty of it. Some kid always knew some guy and you slid him a few bucks to get invited to the party. I also pointed out that we did not have the benefit of today’s research about what drugs and alcohol do to the young brain.

I mean, we didn’t even have seatbelt laws, so we were throwing caution to the wind every time we so much as drove to the grocery store.

I relayed the story of the summer his Aunt and I discovered the stash of the family we babysat for every Saturday. We were totally impressed with this couple’s cool factor. Up until then, we thought parenthood was where fun people went to die.

At the time, it never occurred to us–or our parents– that this dad probably should not drive us home after a night of weed and wine. We never connected the dots that second-hand smoke could have contributed to the mellow toddler we encountered each weekend. We were dumb kids.

Our kids are dumb too, but in a different way. They are educated on the facts and hear the horror stories but the folly of youth keeps them from seeing the big picture. Just like we didn’t connect the dots back in 1981, kids today don’t think about gateway drugs or their own mortality. The focus is on the here and now just as it was for me and my friends.

So, the burden falls to parents to share our cautionary tales. However, I think we have the right to edit our experiences in the retelling. I want my kids to know that I have been where they are. I have had to make the choices they are making and, unfortunately, sometimes I didn’t make the choices that I would make today.

This lesson does not require a full-on confession of all my youthful transgressions. I would not lie, but I approach this topic on a need to know basis. Portraying myself as the perfect child is not going to make me seem super approachable. Conversely, telling them every sordid detail might give them some pretty bad ideas (not to mention making my tumble from the pedestal pretty painful).

Like most things in the parenting world, I strive for balance. If I see a window of opportunity to share my experiences with a captive offspring, then I am jumping on it. If my parental lens leads to a little revisionist history, no one will be harmed in the process of poetic license.

Maureen Stiles writes at her blog, Magnificence in the Mundane, where she chronicles the beauty within the chaos of raising three boys and a dog with her husband, given that the dog is the only one that really understands her. You can also follow Maureen on Facebook and Twitter.

About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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