If you’re a typical parent, you want to help your children avoid mistakes you made at their age—and you face that task with some trepidation. Will the kids take “stay away” warnings seriously if you just pretend your own slip-ups didn’t happen? If you do share your past mistakes, will they be used as ammunition against you—or might they actually tempt your children to try the same things?
First, don’t pretend you were an angel when you know you weren’t. Your children can see you aren’t perfect now; they won’t believe you were perfect then, and they’ll lose respect for you if they smell hypocrisy. Besides, everyone prefers a “voice of experience” as human and fallible as the listeners themselves.
If your childhood mistakes were limited to reckless escapades, go ahead and make them part of normal reminiscing—or own up with a chuckle when the kids hear these stories from your own parents. Just don’t leave out the parts about “it was painful at the time and I learned not to do it again.”
If you made any truly shameful blunders or any with tragic consequences, sharing them is a trickier issue. You probably don’t want the kids repeating those stories around town or hearing all the gory details before grade school. Nor do you want to be dominated by your instinct to keep children off the path that nearly ruined you: parents who resort to totalitarian-state surveillance and “If you ever do this you’ll be disowned” threats—without explaining why that particular “this” is such a concern—rarely accomplish more than to poison the parent-child relationship.
Best approach: as soon as you judge the kids ready to handle it, level with them about what you did wrong and the damage it caused—then explain what you did to make amends, and how the incident didn’t keep you from becoming what you are today. This will make clear to your children that (1) they can trust you to understand their struggles and (2) even if they do screw up, it doesn’t destroy all hope for the future.
Your children may have inherited the character traits that turned you in the wrong direction. Rather than fight it, concentrate on turning those traits in the right direction. Help your into-everything offspring find healthy opportunities for learning, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving. Show your strong-willed child how to develop his leadership skills. If you really want to open communications channels, invite your kids to be pretend advisors to your past self: ask them how you might have gotten excitement/success/material reward/peer approval by a more positive approach.
One other problem of focusing on “don’t do this, don’t do that” is that it plants the idea, “You’re more likely to mess up than not.” Focus, instead, on “I know you can do the right thing”; paint a clear picture of what is the right thing; and your children will find it natural to follow the best route!