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What Secrets Should You Tell Your Kids?

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Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

This doesn't mean you have to become a tell-all household. A couple of topics in particular fall into the category of TMI, says Katherine Yost, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, Washington. "Kids never, ever want to be burdened with the details of your sex life," she explains. "They also don't need to know specifically what led to a divorce, which invites them to take sides." And there's a difference between keeping something hidden and maintaining your privacy. "A secret is something that feels shameful," Yost says. "But everyone has areas labeled 'personal and off-limits.'"

For many parents the dilemma about full disclosure becomes problematic when the subject is their own youthful misadventures, especially if alcohol or drugs were involved. There's no hard-and-fast rule about what to reveal, says Heyman. "You're allowed to respond, if asked, 'That's private.' But it's not a good idea to lie. If you decide to tell, use your story to explain what you learned and want your kids to know, says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes and a Family Circle columnist. "Say something like, 'Yes, when I was your age I did some things I regret, and this is what I now know,'" she says.

While there are valid reasons to be secretive, sometimes the justification is suspect or at least muddled. We may think we're protecting our kids, for example, but we may also be protecting ourselves, suggests Caughlin. "People worry that their children will lose respect for them," he says. That's what concerned Beth (names have been changed), a Minneapolis mother who only recently told her sons, 12 and 15, that she was previously married in her early twenties. "It was an impulsive thing and even though it was a long time ago, I was uneasy about it," she says. "I wondered if they'd see me differently if they knew the truth, but it didn't change a thing." Parents may also avoid topics because they've got more emotional work to do themselves, says Yost. "It's pretty tough to know what to talk about and how," she says, "when you're still not clear yourself."

In the end, though, the benefits of coming clean—in a thoughtful, careful way—may bring a family closer. In fact, says Caughlin, for most people, the outcome is better than anticipated. That was true for Greg when he confided to his 16-year-old son, Bryan, that he'd been married before. A few days later, coincidentally, Bryan bumped into a high school friend of Greg's who assumed Bryan's mom was Greg's first wife. "I was able to correct him," says Bryan. "But I would have been really confused if my folks hadn't already filled me in." The new openness also strengthened the relationship between father and son. "My dad has always been very shy and reserved," Bryan says. "I realized that doesn't mean he hasn't had experience. Now I feel like he might understand more of what I go through."

There could also be deeper long-term benefits. "Kids take their cues from us," says Yost. "If we make it safe to talk about uncomfortable subjects, they'll feel freer to come to us about important things when they need help." In fact, what may matter most is not the details of the story but the deepened bonds created when openness and honesty prevail.