Here’s the scenario: You have quite a past—whether it’s drug use or alcohol or past sexual activity. Then you got married and 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?
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).
Remember, 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 in the early church (at least with the Gentile converts, not the Jewish converts), EVERYBODY had a past. Nobody had a pristine pre-Christian life, 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.
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. If you didn’t make good decisions as a youth, it’s as though you’re giving them permission to do things you’d rather they wouldn’t.
Perhaps that’s because we still see 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 that 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 lives like that, then our stories become God’s stories.
If we frame our past 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 favor.
I have a dear friend 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-degree 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 my friend 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 eldest, and her eldest 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?” 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. But maybe they were never supposed to, anyway.
Always Talk About What God Has Done
If we frame our past 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 favor. We teach them that 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. I saw what it did to me, and I don’t want that for you.”
And you can tell them about the scars. I think once a child is old enough—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). 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 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.
Swallow Your Pride
This can be a big issue. We like being that mom to look up to, and we’re worried that we’ll lose that if our kids discover 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, don’t you?
Let’s let our kids want to walk in Jesus’ steps, not in our steps.
Used with permission. Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage . She blogs everyday at To Love, Honor and Vacuum , in between homeschooling her youngest daughter and making wedding plans for her oldest daughter!