There comes that time in every parent’s life when one of their children asks a question that stops them dead in their tracks.
We freeze, like a deer in headlights, but realize immediately the next words we utter could change our parenting path forever. There is no time to confer with our partner or to consider psychological and emotional ramifications of whichever tact we take, whether it's truth, avoidance, or denial.
For me, it was my son. He was 12 at the time – at an age of vulnerability and inquisitiveness with teen angst lurking right around the corner. Not yet an adult but so much more than a child. I had to weigh the pros and cons of my answer in a nanosecond, not one of my best attributes – articulation under pressure.
“Did you smoke marijuana when you were young, mom?” he queried.
Apparently, his class was visited by a local police representative from D.A.R.E. ("an international substance abuse prevention education program that seeks to prevent use of controlled drugs, membership in gangs, and violent behavior.")
My brother and both my sisters are alcoholics, one sister also became a heroin addict. My husband had a long history of drug abuse and alcoholism and my own personal history included drug and alcohol abuse.
Being the last of four children, I watched as my siblings’ lives crumbled into chaos and turmoil so my personal history was not as serious. However, there was only one honest answer to the question asked by my son, no gray area to grant any side-step shuffle; it was a simple, forthright question, requiring a yes or no answer.
Instantly, the memories of every joint I rolled and smoked, every line of cocaine I snorted, every drunken night out with my friends were flashing in my mind like the disco lights in the clubs we frequented. Before I spoke, I imagined his face, the innocence in his eyes waning right before my own, as I told him of my sordid past, knowing he would never look at me, his mother, the same way ever again.
No, full disclosure was certainly not the answer.
I am a firm believer that children deserve honest answers to questions relative to their age. Certainly my son didn’t need to be subjected to a barrage of information regarding my family history of drug and alcohol abuse but he was old enough to understand the prologue of a story he would one day come to know.
“Mom?” he said, snapping me back into the present. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had made my decision. Every parent, at some point, has to decide for themselves whether they will hold their past indiscretion cards close to their vest or show them to their children; and if shown, how many at a time?
It felt like someone else taking his young hand and leading him into our living room to sit on the couch and have what was to be our first judicious mother/son conversation.
“Son, I am going to tell you some things and I want you to listen until I’m done and then you can ask any questions you like, okay?”
He nodded in agreement and adopted a more adult posture, sitting up straighter and placing his hands on his lap. He instinctively knew by my demeanor that this conversation was going to be different and I marveled at how he prepared his ADHD mind to listen – really listen – and concentrate on what his mother was about to say.
“When I was younger, older than you but still a lot younger than I am now, my friends and I did smoke sometimes when we were together. It was a different time when I was growing up, we didn’t think of it as a gateway drug," (a term I knew he was familiar with).
"I’m not going to lie and tell you that I shouldn’t have done it or that I wish I hadn’t because I don’t feel that way. I want you to know the truth. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not saying it’s okay for you to do, it’s not, it’s a different world now."
"I can tell you there are going to be times in your life, very soon as a matter of fact, when you are going to have to make decisions for yourself about trying cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and all kinds of things. I won’t be right there to advise you and neither will dad. You have to decide for yourself. I want you to listen to all the things they tell you in this D.A.R.E. program and when you have questions, about this or anything at all, come to me and ask, okay? You need a lot of information to make good decisions in life. Does that answer your question? Do you want to ask anything else?”
“No, I’m good” he nodded.
“I’m going outside to ride bikes with Andy. Oh, and thanks for telling me the truth, mom.”
As I watched him clamor out the door, I knew I was no longer watching my little boy leave to play. I was watching a soon-to-be-young-man growing up way too fast in a world full of potential pitfalls and danger. I also knew he would feel comfortable coming to me when he had concerns or questions. That, I decided in a nanosecond, was a relationship worth telling the truth for.