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The Secrets Learned From a Bad Childhood

As parents, we often think the opposite of wrong is right, but actually the opposite of wrong is…still wrong.

If you want to guarantee that you screw up your child’s hood, just like your parents screwed up yours, then do the exact opposite of what your parents did. I call it reactionary parenting.

My parents, I guess in some loving and demented way, thought it was best to never share with my brothers and me the tragedies that occurred while we were kids. As an adult I believe that they thought we were too young to understand, or they desired to protect us from pain. But as a child, you can still comprehend that something is going on and you feel crazy being lied to.

Besides being maddening, keeping secrets can cause extremely awkward situations, like, for instance, the time at a family reunion when my brothers and I asked where our uncle was. Everyone turned red because he had been dead for six months. Seriously? Did you forget? Did you think we would never notice? At least tell us before the reunion. It wasn’t like I was a little kid when this happened either. I was 18.  

Now, as an adult, I hate secrets and I don’t keep them well. Telling me a secret is like handing me a set of chattering teeth. I try to hold them tight in my hand, hide them behind my back, stuff them in a pocket, but I can hear them chatter like the Tell-Tale Heart.  Chatta, chatta, chatta, Gottatellya, Gottatellya, Gottatellya.

I am still surprised when my friends tell me secrets. Haven’t you been burned by this before? Because if you think I have learned my lesson, then you should know that I’m wondering if you haven’t learned yours. As George W. Bush so eloquently misstated, “fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me, well you can't get fooled again.”

As parents, we often think the opposite of wrong is right, but actually the opposite of wrong is … still wrong. In fact sometimes the two opposites can create the very same effect. An article in the July 2010 issue of Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs entitled "" found the highest rates of heavy drinking among teenagers whose parents were extremely strict and among the opposite, parents who were extremely lax. Two extremes equal the same result.

I always joke that if you keep secrets from your kids they grow up to be writers. In reaction to my parents, I tell everything in public, with pictures. I’ve gone to the other extreme and it can’t be good for my kids. I can see my son in 8 years, “Mom, I hate you. I can’t believe you published a story about walking in on me kissing my pillow.” Although if he could read today, he would probably be mad because I already walked in on him kissing a girl. He is 4! I asked him, “Did you kiss on the lips?”  “Yes.” Then I asked, “Did you kiss anywhere else?” His reply: “Yes … in the chair.” Whew.

My kids will probably become the most secretive humans alive. And of course, then all their children will be writers.

So even though I know better, I still find myself saying that my parents did this so I am going to do the exact opposite. My parents never let me paint my room black and hang up posters of Madonna gyrating in a wedding dress. They didn’t let me tattoo my first boyfriend Richard’s nickname on my neck. My parents never let me make any decisions causing me to feel controlled and untrustworthy, so I’m going to let my kids make all their own decisions causing them to feel unloved and neglected.

When we are parenting from a state where we are fixating on old wounds, we are actually thinking like our child-self. Reactionary parenting is parenting with the emotional intelligence of a child. If you don’t believe me, please eavesdrop on my screeching brain:  

I’m going to tell my kids everything. I will never keep any secrets from them. I want to make them insane from too much information. So there!  

And if you feel the urge to bite me so I’ll stop talking, that might be a good indicator too.

So what should we do?

Come closer. I’ll whisper in your ear. Here’s the secret:

Whenever you start to think, "my parents did this so I am going to do that," stop yourself and contemplate what a normal healthy, not-deranged person would do. Envision sane parents, place yourself in the middle of the road and move on from there.

At first, imagining healthy behavior can seem foreign and impossible, but it becomes easier as you practice. Normal well-functioning adults, if they exist, don’t keep everything from their kids, nor do they expose all. If your parents had hideous fights in front of you as a child, then never fighting is not the answer. Show them that loving couples can have conflicts and make up. If you grew up poor and toy-less, then giving your children everything only makes them ungrateful. Making your children occasionally work for things they want helps them appreciate what they have.

The resolution to our past is not parenting in reaction but, it appears,  in starting to follow the clichéd path of moderation.

My parents didn’t even let me know Facebook existed when I was a kid, help me catch up by clicking “like” on Pen Name Jane’s page.

About this column: Pen Name Jane is a weekly shared column by two Dunedin mothers who aren't afraid to tell it like it is.

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