How to talk to your kid about not being perfect

Twelve years into this whole parenting thing, with my daughter barreling full tilt into her teen years, my wife and I have gotten a little bit lazy on certain aspects of the parenting game. Specifically, we’ve started to slack off when it comes to defending our personal reputations as paragons of parenting perfection in our daughter’s eyes.

Early on in your child’s development, you may find yourself fully and wholeheartedly committed to being the ultimate role model for every aspect of their lives. But as time goes on, it just gets tiring trying to cover up the mistakes of your past, and honestly, you might find it’s healthier for your kid’s emotional and social development to understand that every once in a while, everybody does stupid things.

Case in point, over the holidays, my daughter Sarah and I were driving past a construction zone on the Mass Turnpike. The following conversation ensued:

Sarah: “What do you think would happen if you hit one of those construction barrels?”

Me: “Yeah, that would be pretty bad. They’re filled with sand, so they’re really heavy.”

Sarah: “You’re making that up. How do you know that?”

Me: “I stole one and brought it home once.”

See? Right there. I didn’t even hesitate. The words just popped out before I realized what I was telling her — effectively that, at some point in my life I stopped my car in the middle of the Mass Pike and tossed a construction barrel in my backseat. Just for kicks. I’m sure that early in my career as a father it would’ve struck me that this wasn’t the brightest thing to tell my kid, but not anymore. And it got worse.

Sarah: “If they’re so heavy, how did you get it in the car?”

Me: “Oh, Uncle John was with me. He helped.”

Wow. No honor among thieves here. Not even a second of hesitation before Uncle John — genius, PhD in bio-engineering, and best man at my wedding — got pulled right under the bus with me. And of course it’s just a matter of time before my daughter tells his daughter.

And speaking of buses, it turns out that you’re not the only source of information when it comes to your kids learning about the glorious results of your misspent youth.

There’s an MBTA bus bumper hanging up across the rafters in my mom’s garage (the one my daughter is holding below). Let the record show that said bumper fell off the back of a bus in the middle of Kenmore Square one night when I was a student at Boston University and actually found its way into my possession with the absolute best of intentions — we picked it up out of the street so no one would get hurt driving over it!

Just recently, I found out that my mom has never really bought that story, and has told Sarah more than once that my friend Gary and I stole it right off a moving bus. Not true in the least, and poor Gary! I don’t think he was even there, but I guess my mom just assumed it sounded like something he’d be involved with (that’s not entirely unfair). The only shifty part of the true story was sneaking the bumper past dorm security after finding it lying in the street, but despite multiple conversations on the topic, I’m still not sure my daughter entirely believes that I didn’t steal it.

As she’s gotten older Sarah has learned all sorts of exciting tales that put her family in its proper perspective. For example:

  • The fact that one of our ancestors was hanged for piracy on the high seas. It has to be true — it’s written on our family tree. The fact that this historical footnote was clearly added to this priceless family heirloom by my uncles, in magic marker, in no way robs the story of value or validity.
  • That time my dad and my uncle burned down the family barn, playing with matches. My grandmother watched them walk back-and-forth across the yard with armloads of newspapers and kindling, and thought they were just being helpful boys until they came barreling into the kitchen to let her know something had gone awry.
  • The time my aunt — the one Sarah’s named for — got busted smoking cigars in her bedroom closet. In third grade.
  • Or how my dad and my uncle convinced their youngest brother to grab hold of a live electric fence. Three times in a row.
  • The blatant lie I told to my future wife and mother of my child about how often I biked in order to lock down a first date biking from Brighton down to Faneuil Hall for lunch. The jig was sort of up when the entire rusty right hand brake assembly fell off of my bike crossing Storrow Drive.
  • Of course her mother also lied to me right out of the gate. On that same first date, I was positive I saw a pack of cigarettes in her purse, but she told me she didn’t smoke. So yes — our daughter now knows that her parents’ first date was built on lies from both both of us.
  • And of course she knows that I once had a warrant issued for my arrest in the state of Virginia. Don’t ask. The story’s much more exciting if we leave it at that.

But here’s the thing: These stories haven’t actually ruined our reputations as role models for my daughter. If anything, the epic tales about her grandfather have cemented his reputation as the stuff of legends.

The simple fact is, even the best role models have skeletons they’d like to keep locked away in the closest. There are certainly stories from my past I’ll continue to keep secret. Things I’m not proud of that are either too thoughtless or selfish to have entertainment value. Those are the kinds of object lessons you hold in reserve, just in case you need a really startling lesson to explain to your kid why you know they shouldn’t do something.

But the stupid stuff, the goofy stuff — your Great and Glorious History of Idiocy — these are the stories that make you just a little bit more human to your kids. A little more relatable. They’re going to learn about them eventually, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so you might as well control the story. Tell the tall tales, spin the yarns, embellish the legends. They don’t make you a bad role model. If anything, they make you wise in the ways of the world, even if the path you took to that wisdom was particularly unwise. They add a little bit more validity to your opinion when you tell your children something might not be the best idea, because you’re speaking from experience.

And if you tell a story that really backfires on you, and you can tell that your kids are judging you, just do what I do. Be completely honest and pull someone else under the bus with you.

“Okay fine, but just remember that your mom used to smoke! That’s way worse.”

About the blogger:
Amateur husband and father, specialist in the fields of heavy metal and superheroes, and occasional writer, Steve Coldwell is the voice of the Nerdy Metal Dad blog and the Manager of Enterprise and Executive Communications for Boston Children’s Hospital. He is also a first-time dog owner, which is almost exactly like starting over from scratch with another baby.