Maternal Truths
How much about your teenage transgressions should you tell your kids?

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, May 4, 2008

SOME MONTHS BACK, I was invited to a party with 20 or so other mothers. It was a wine-and-cheese affair, ladies only: The hostess had evacuated her husband and kids to the mall. Gathered around her dining room

table, we talked about our children, and then a few of the women began reminiscing about their own youths, comparing the transgressions they'd committed in their teens and 20s and debating whose were the most egregious.

"I win, I win!" one mother exclaimed. "I was a stripper!"

This contribution came from a woman I have long admired. Smart and good-humored, she has always seemed a veritable supermother, remarkable for her ability to work a full day and come home to direct a range of extracurricular activities for her bright and engaging children. I see them sometimes out for a walk, and always imagine that they are discussing quadratic equations or figuring the velocity of the wind. And now it emerged that, in her salad days, this working mom with a security clearance had removed her clothing, onstage, to the accompaniment of "Pretty Woman."

She and her boyfriend, she told me later, were traveling after graduation, and at one point found themselves broke, sleeping on a friend's floor in New Orleans. An acquaintance was going for an interview at a strip club, and it occurred to my friend that here was an opportunity for some ready income. So she tagged along and was hired. On her first night, nobody told her she was supposed to bring pasties -- though the club required them, it was apparently a BYOP joint -- and the upshot was that she found herself dancing topless while her more experienced colleagues were, nominally, covered. Which was a little unnerving, she remembers, but by then there was no going back. There was a pole, and, in fact, she said, it isn't all that hard to learn to pole-dance.

Laughing, I asked if she would ever tell her children about her short-lived foray into the entertainment business, which ended when she came down with food poisoning the next day. "No, I don't think I'll be telling my kids about that one," she said, although, she added, she would never want to lie.

She probably won't have to. Likely, few children would think to ask their mom if she appeared in her birthday suit, or portions of it, in public, though after this piece runs the women in my little social circle may face some interrogation, and, ladies, I am sorry for that, and good luck to you! But children do ask other, more plausible questions, and it strikes me that sooner or later many mothers of our generation will have some 'splainin' to do. Coming of age, as we did, in the 1970s -- that golden era of basement recreation rooms, Spencer Gifts stores, contraceptive breakthroughs and the discovery that marijuana could be baked into brownies -- many of today's most responsible mothers (and fathers) once engaged in social experimentation that might surprise their offspring. Even if they were not the people naked in the mud at Woodstock, they were probably doing something they are glad wasn't photographed. Ironically, it is these very memories that have turned many of us into hyper-vigilant parents, intent on making sure our children don't get up to the very behaviors our cohort once engaged in with such glee.

"The idea of [my daughter] being so drunk she doesn't know where she is on campus -- I shudder!" one mother, who had just such a memory, told me.

As we pursue the goal of protecting our children from some of our more boneheaded and/or high-risk antics, we face one of the essential dilemmas of parenting: What do children need to know about their parents' pasts, and when do they need to know it?

"IT'S FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK THAT," said Rosemary, the genial woman who answered the phone at the Yale Child Study Center. I had called to see if any of the center's child-development experts could provide an answer. Maybe there has been a definitive study saying tell your teenagers everything, or definitely tell them nothing, or definitely always lie. Maybe there was a brochure with guidelines. I was curious to know whether teenagers view their parents as role models; and, if so, do they model their behavior on their parents' present -- paycheck-earning, soccer-driving, homework-supervising -- or their less exemplary pasts? I also wanted to know whether children are capable of understanding who their mothers and fathers are, or whether they would even want to.

What a coincidence, marveled Rosemary. She'd just been out for cocktails with friends who had debated exactly that issue. These were women with older teenagers, and among the queries they had already received were: "When did you first have sex?" and "Mom, did you smoke pot?" and the dreaded catchall, "What kind of things did you do?" Some of the mothers had answered honestly; some had not. She offered to put me in touch with one of the center's staff counselors, who called back and said, apologetically, "There isn't any one-size-fits-all response to your question."

And that is what I found. Asking experts and parents with more experience than I have, it emerged that there is no road map, perhaps because this was not something mothers of past generations had to deal with, or not quite so acutely. While youthful misbehavior was by no means born with the baby boomers, it seems safe to say that women growing up before the 1960s had fewer temptations available to them, and usually married before they had a chance to engage in much illicit behavior. And those mothers who did have dark secrets -- like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House denying her illegitimate daughter -- knew they'd darn well better keep them hidden. Only lately has it become thinkable that a woman might acknowledge having a less-than-perfect past, though even now you wonder if mothers might be judged more harshly than fathers for youthful indiscretions.

So, should you admit to your child what you've done? If you do, how will it affect your ability to keep your son or daughter from engaging in the ever-lengthening list of things we want children to avoid in this age of Just Say No? Drugs, drinking, drinking and driving, drugging and driving, driving too fast, texting while driving, downloading porn from the Internet, chatting online with strangers, too-early sex, oral sex, unprotected sex, drug-or-alcohol-induced sex, sex with jerks, sex with a girl who aspires to have a baby . . . the list of anxieties is never-ending. If you cop to something, anything, will this give your children tacit permission to try it all? Remarkably few -- if any -- researchers have explored this topic.

"What I could find on this specific conversation is basically nothing," reported Jennifer Manlove, a senior research associate at Child Trends, a reliable source of data on children and adolescents.

Which is surprising, when you consider that one truth universally recognized nowadays is that it's crucially important to talk to your kids, early and often, about all of the above-mentioned topics. This represents a departure from what many of us experienced growing up. Thirty years ago, parents laid down the law in a general way, sternly warning us to behave ourselves, and left it at that. Teachers were not much more helpful. In all my years of school, I never received an educational session on contraception, whereas my own children have been subjected to "Family Life Education" curricula so often that the word "penis" actually bores them. Growing up, I do remember one junior high assembly where an anti-vice type warned us against drug abuse, offering as an example an addict who allegedly put her baby in the oven and cooked it. We did not take these stories seriously, and, because the few people talking to us were not talking in reasonable terms, we stopped listening.

All that has changed. "Millions of little interchanges" is how Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, described the regular conversations parents are advised to have with children about sex, and drugs, and drinking, and driving. "Consistently, the teens have always said . . . that parents have the greatest influence on their sexual decisions," said Brown, though parents do not always appreciate their own influence.

"Specific conversations about risky behavior are important with kids," seconded Manlove, making it less likely they will "have sex at an early age, or [become] involved in some sort of substance abuse, or [bad] academic outcomes or delinquencies or problem behaviors."

So it's odd, really, that there is no consensus on what to do when one of the million little interchanges involves the question of whether the parent is -- oh, say -- familiar with the taste of strawberry-flavored rolling paper. Experts, exploring their own gut instincts, differ.

"I never felt I had to reveal much," said Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "As teenagers, my kids would ask me, what did you do . . . I never wanted to lie to them about things, but I didn't think my sexual history -- what I might or might not have done as a teenager -- was useful to them in developing their own decision-making skills."

Brown, somewhat in contrast, posited that teenagers find it powerful when parents look back and reflect on their own mistakes. "An honest answer -- particularly if it's, here's what I did, I had sex for the first time at 16, and . . . on reflection I would not have done it, and I think you should not do it and here's why -- that's a very honest answer that adolescents find deeply credible and meaningful."

"Err on the side of sharing less," advised Daniel Buccino, a director of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"Especially with teens, it is helpful for parents to remain authoritative without being authoritarian, and it is hard to be authoritative if there has been too much self-disclosure."

And that is the rub. Research does show that it's important for parents to establish clear household values. "If you don't want your kid to have unprotected sex, or you don't want them having sex when very young, or doing drugs, it's very important to show very strong disapproval of that," Manlove stressed. In other words, you risk sending a mixed message if you broke any of those rules and then ask your child not to break them.

One thing the experts agree on is: Be prepared to face this quandary. A question will be lobbed at you, probably from the back seat, probably when you are navigating a Beltway interchange. "I think it's important to reflect on one's own adolescence and think about how to answer those questions," said Brown. "They come up in most families."

AND, INDEED, IT HAS BEEN MY EXPERIENCE, so far, that when younger children are looking for norms of behavior, they turn to the most obvious source -- their parents. Last winter, for example, my then-11-year-old daughter played in a basketball league where one of the opposing teams was called the Flaming Shots. I thought the name was funny, and my kids, of course, wanted to know what the joke was. So I found myself explaining not only a flaming shot but the concept of a shot, period.

"Mom, do you do flaming shots?" my 9-year-old son asked later. I was relieved to be able to say that not only do I not do flaming shots, I am not quite sure how they are done. Curious, I looked on YouTube, where there are some videos of flaming shots gone badly wrong, which provided a convenient lesson: Kids, never end up in a situation where you are rushing into the bathroom, screaming, with your shirt and mouth on fire, and other partygoers shouting, "Oh, my God, somebody help him!"

"Mom, do you like the taste of beer?" my son asked me not long after our flaming shot discussion. I could nix that one as well. But I do like the taste of a half-glass of wine sometimes when I am cooking, and young children these days get talked to so often and so direly by school authorities about the pernicious effects of alcohol that in fifth grade my daughter came home and said to me, sternly, "Mom, alcohol is a drug."

In fact, another reason why moms and dads of today are likely to be subjected to inquisition is that children now have their consciousness raised so early and vigorously -- by teachers and at school assemblies and by other official message-givers -- that they know this stuff exists at a very young age. And, for a while, they are such avid temperance workers that a father I know -- a moderate imbiber, though no doubt he threw back his share in college at the Southern party school he attended -- used to hide in his parked car in the driveway whenever he wanted to drink a single beer.

So early does the educating start that, when my son was in preschool, he already knew that drugs are bad for you. He asked me why drugstores are allowed to sell them. I explained that there are good drugs and bad drugs, and then -- taking things one step too far -- I added instructively that one day he would probably be at a party where some creepy person would go around saying, "Heh, heh, want to buy some drugs?" and that he should refuse. I delivered the dialogue so histrionically that he felt the urge to imitate it, and sat in the back seat for a good half-hour saying, to his sister, "Heh, heh, want to buy some drugs?" I had a terror that he would start dropping the line in preschool.

They haven't asked again -- they probably fear setting off more of Mom's theatrics -- but, when they do, I can honestly say I was always repelled by the drug scene. I will also tell them that there was way too much drinking at my high school. I grew up on the outskirts of Appalachia, in a liquor-sodden culture where alcohol was ubiquitous, drinking ages were lower, and there was always some older kid willing to make a run for grain alcohol. Country roads were treacherous, and the toxic combination of drinking and driving had unforgiving consequences for way too many kids I knew, and I do feel very, very prepared to talk to my children about all of that.

There's a way to do this without self-revelation, by talking in general terms about one's peer group, and the fact that we knew so much less about the dangers of drinking and driving. There are parables and cautionary tales that can be recounted without using names and by way of offering children a safe harbor if they do make a mistake down the road. The parents of teenagers I interviewed all made a point of promising their children that they would fetch them, any time, anywhere, no questions asked, if they could not get home safely.

But what about everything else that went on when I was a teenager and even before? Kids smoking cigarettes, sneaking out, having sex way too early, joyriding, convening parties in whatever house was temporarily devoid of parents? I had a friend who, at 14, regularly drove the family car around the block, an act that then seemed hilarious but which, if one of my kids did it, would seem so shocking that I would sign them up for therapy.

"We were bad, weren't we?" marveled one mother, a neighbor of mine who is deeply responsible and attentive to her children's welfare. Actually, it's not that we were bad; it's that the '60s unleashed some real furies on the culture, and those of us who came along shortly thereafter were exposed to them so young that our lingering sense of play made them seem just another game, really.

"I was a friggin' dealer in ninth grade!" this woman remembered incredulously. That year, she recalled, she and a friend would buy a nickel bag of marijuana and smuggle it to her friend's bedroom. Under the bed was a shoebox of candy -- also forbidden in her friend's household -- and beside that was a second shoebox in which they would store the contraband. "We would roll joints and put them in Sucrets boxes and bring them to school and sell them for a dollar," she said. The point wasn't getting high -- she doesn't remember doing that much -- or even making money, but the crafts project aspect. "What was really fun was that we got really good at rolling them." She also remembered stealing. She and her friends took some costume jewelry from a department store and sorted through it at a table at Friendly's.

And she would be horrified -- horrified! -- if her kids did any of these things. She regrets any high school experimentation and doesn't want her children following in her footsteps. This surprised her sister, who doesn't have kids and so doesn't understand the radical change of perspective that comes with parenthood. "She thought I was going to be, like, this really cool parent: When you're ready to try [marijuana], I'll get it for you." Not hardly. It is your children who fully reform you.

And we really do know so much more now than we used to. When we were 14, we didn't believe a drug user would cook her own baby, but then again, we didn't know what actually might happen. Now we know that drugs and alcohol can affect the developing teenage brain, and that drugs can exacerbate mental illness, and that a tendency to addiction may run in families. We know that some drugs, like marijuana, are much stronger now, and there are other drugs -- ecstasy, crack, crystal meth -- that are totally terrifying.

We also know what even the old drugs did to some of the people we grew up with. To be sure, there were kids who took all kinds of drugs and emerged unscathed. I remember being at a music club in high school, watching a boy I knew as he gradually slid down the wall until he was passed out, unconscious, sitting on the floor. He is now on the board of a charitable organization that occasionally sends me solicitations, and when I get these pleas for money I have to laugh, remembering that image.

But there were also those who experimented and never recovered, or who are functional now, but barely. "I still run into a shocking number of drug casualties from the 1960s and '70s who wander the streets, some of them homeless," wrote journalist David Sheff in his bestseller, Beautiful Boy. He described his own youthful drug use, by the end of which he saw enough "accidents, suicides and drug overdoses" to realize what a horrific mistake it was.

We have all, by now, seen the same. "My older sister always gave my parents a lot of trouble. She was an extremely intelligent girl but never really followed the straight and narrow, and now she's 52, divorced. She has a 16-year-old son who lives with his father and not her . . . She is not working, she's a sad case," said a woman named Cindy, whom I interviewed because she is well-known among her friends for a policy of unusual openness with her children. Cindy has memories of her own behavior that appall her in retrospect. "Some nights I would wake up in the morning and look out the window and wonder how my car even got there."

All of which Cindy told her children. "Don't ever put yourself in that position," she said to them. She wanted them to know what a bad scene it was, and to make it clear that she was familiar with the warning signs. When her daughter attended an anti-drug assembly, "I piped up and said, 'Mom did [drugs] when she was young; it doesn't do any good; it fries your brain and can get you in a hell of a lot of trouble.'" Her husband, a police officer, couldn't believe she talked to them so openly. Friends, too, were shocked.

But her rationale was that there had been too little honest conversation in her own house, growing up. "My parents -- I feel that if they told us the truth, we probably wouldn't have done half of what we did. I always told my children, when they got old enough that they started to go out to parties, and driving: 'You walk out the door, when you come home, Dad and I will be up. Don't think you ever can walk by me without me knowing whether you are not straight.'"

She also gave them advice based on her own harrowing experiences, telling them never to put a drink down in a bar and leave it and then come back to it, because she did that and someone slipped a drug in her drink. "I woke up the next day and hadn't a clue" what had happened or how she had gotten home.

The result, she said, is that her kids "have always been truthful with me." Her three children, straight-A students nearing adulthood, experimented very little and always told her what they were doing. "I just feel that hiding things will never benefit them."

Honesty worked for her, and experts agree that one's own experience, presented as a cautionary tale, can be effective. But it doesn't always work. Beautiful Boy is mainly about the methamphetamine addiction of Sheff's son, Nic, an addiction that occurred despite the fact that Sheff confessed his own drug use to his son, in a failed attempt to dissuade him from experimenting. When he discovered that Nic was smoking pot and tried to get him to stop, his son retorted: "You smoked tons of pot. You're a great one to talk."

In the memoir, Sheff wondered whether it was a mistake to reveal his past to his son, and he could not make a conclusive recommendation to other parents. "I would be careful never to glorify drug or alcohol use and would consider children's ages, never giving more information than they can comprehend at the time," he wrote. Ultimately, what Sheff did or did not say may not have mattered. There may be some kids with such a predisposition to addiction -- and such a craving for intense experience -- that nothing could stop them. Nic, who wrote his own memoir, said as much to radio interviewer Terry Gross: "I think I was always really curious, and I idolized, you know, a lot of people who were drug addicts and heavy, you know, users and stuff . . . I don't think there was anything anyone could've done differently."

Clearly, it's hard for parents who experienced a genuine bad patch to know how to prevent such a skid for their child. I spoke to one such mother, Latrice Ware, the executive director of the Youth Business Initiative, which offers children growing up in foster homes exposure to professional work, arts, culture and other aspects of mainstream adult life.

Ware herself spent her teenage years in the foster care

system, dropped out of school and became pregnant at 19. A single mother, she has two daughters by different fathers. How to talk to her young girls, who are 5 and almost 9, about her youth? How to ensure, for them, a different future?

"I've talked to them a little bit about my past," she said. Children ask lots of questions based on what they read in newspapers and see on television, and one day the family was talking about sexually transmitted diseases, and Ware emphasized the importance of self-respect and making good decisions. "You have to really value your body," she tells them.

They are curious about their mother's childhood. Her younger daughter often asked to see baby pictures, and, because there aren't any, "for the longest time, she thought that I've always been a grown-up." For them, she has made a series of gradual, very careful revelations, so they will understand risks and how to avoid them. "I want them to be as prepared as they can, and still allow them to be children."

Allow them to be children: an important admonition. Because it can be toxic when a parent over-confides. My friend the one-time stripper says that when she was growing up, her mother, who was divorced, shared far too much about her love life. It was the 1970s, and mothers were having their own little escapades, and my friend was given sexual advice at an age where she was not at all prepared to receive it. In high school she went to a porn movie as a lark, and later told her mother. When she mentioned the leading man, her mother exclaimed, "Oh, I love him!"

Which is a comment you never, ever want to hear from your mom.

"My mother told me everything . . . my mother made me her best friend, and that was a big mistake," a woman wrote, answering a query I had posted on a Web site called D.C. Urban Moms and Dads. For her, the upshot was that she lost respect for her mother's authority. "Consequently, I was a horrible teenager, claiming that I could do everything she did better." It's a fine distinction: Cindy, the advocate of openness, talked to her children from the vantage point of maturity and maternal authority, using her past as a negative example. But using one's child as a confidante is a different thing altogether.

I ALSO TALKED TO MOTHERS WHO CONVINCINGLY DEFENDED LYING, particularly when it comes to premarital sex. Several years ago, a colleague found herself in a discussion about promiscuity with her adolescent daughter. Her daughter related what some girls in her middle school were doing, and clearly wanted reassurance that it was okay to be one of the girls who wasn't doing those things. My colleague assured her that the right time for sex occurs much later, when you have a mature, reliable relationship with somebody you trust and love.

"And you never had that with anybody but Daddy, did you?" her daughter asked.

My friend paused. The pause, she remembered later, went on a little too long. "You didn't, did you?" her daughter persisted.

"No," she said. "I didn't."

She lied. Or rather, she prevaricated. I think there's a difference. To confess what she may or may not have done would have been hard for her daughter to process, at an age where kids tend to see things in black and white and might not understand the distinction between premarital sex at 14 or 15 and premarital sex at 21 or 22. "I didn't want to convey to that particular age group and that decision-making brain that sex when you're not married is okay," said this mother, who has a very frank relationship with her now-in-college daughter. And she does think that for younger children, telling the whole truth can be interpreted as permission to experiment. "You don't want to say: 'I smoked dope or did drugs or had sex,' when they're in high school. It does lower the barrier." This may be especially true when it's obvious that Mom turned out fine.

"So it's better to lie," argued this colleague, whose goal was to make sure that her children delayed any experimentation as long as possible. And that goal, the experts say, is admirable: We do not want our children experimenting at 14, or 15, or 16. The longer they wait, the more moderate their behavior will be in adulthood. "I figured I had through high school to get them set," said this mother. "And so there are times when you have to kind of dissemble."

And let's face it: Parents lie to their children all the time, offering up many comfortable fictions. When we read them fairy tales, we are, in a sense, lying. When we lead them to believe every story has a happy ending, we are lying. Our culture puts so much emphasis on frankness and sharing that it's easy to forget the real uses of evasion and stalling and deftly changing the subject, which are social skills on which civilizations -- and, sometimes, families -- rely.

Because the truth can be harsh and destructive, and why force it upon them? Another friend, who is happily married to her high school sweetheart, was told one day by her middle-schooler, "I'm going to be just like you and daddy -- I'm not going to have sex until I'm married!"

To which my amused friend said, "Good!"

Because what her daughter was looking for, from her, was not the revelation that she and her husband had shared a room during college. Her daughter was looking for assurance that premarital sex was undesirable. These days, when the culture works hard to deliver the opposite message, mothers do their daughters a real favor by giving them the support to opt out. "You're giving them permission to still think it's disgusting, because they're living in a culture where it's the be-all and end-all. There is a lot of pressure on girls to live up to the standards they see on TV, of sexual profligacy. The best thing you can do is give them permission to think it's icky, or wrong," said my friend.

In other words, you have to suss out what they are really asking. According to Sarah Brown, who has conducted many teen surveys, what adolescents want from their parents is not a detailed account of their own behavior. What they want is someone to help them through the difficult relationship decisions they themselves will be making.

What do the teens themselves think? Of four teens I asked, they were split down the middle. Two thought that a parent's own behavior might offer a useful example about consequences. Two thought it was way better not to know. "If you're talking to your parents about something, and they bring up their own past, it's awkward," said one 18-year-old woman. "I would rather not know. Honestly, it would be so awkward. The whole mother-daughter relationship would be different, if I knew what she had done."

It's also true that our own behavior is moot, because the child is living in a different world, one that includes porn downloaded onto cellphones and studies showing that as many as one in four girls has a sexually transmitted

disease. One that includes crystal meth and three-strikes laws and AIDS. All these risks can be pointed out, and it's also key for parents to express regret or disapproval about the stupid, often dangerous things they did when they were young. Talking about his own teenage drinking and drug use in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, for example, Barack Obama presents it as something he was doing out of anger, while trying to figure out his racial identity. He does not portray it as fun, even if it was.

AND WHAT IF YOU DON'T EXACTLY REGRET WHAT YOU DID? Another friend is the child of immigrants who were clueless about American teenage culture. Growing up in the 1980s, she could do anything, pretty much, and easily keep it from her old-world parents. In high school, she had a boyfriend who not only used drugs but dealt them. She lived with him at one point, constructing an elaborate phone tree to fool her parents about her whereabouts, and tried some of the drugs he was selling.

It was a mistake, she says now, not just the drugs but the boyfriend. Still, she doesn't really have any regrets. She argues that mistakes are part of growing up. They are part of experience, and experience is vital, so in that sense, she said, "I don't think it was a horrific mistake, and I don't know how to represent it to my children without saying that it was a mistake." She also does not want to seem that she's being cool or swaggering or bragging. There is, she believes, an acceptable region between lying and not lying. Right now, she and her daughter tell elaborate stories about fairies, and her daughter sort of knows that fairies don't exist, but she likes the stories.

"It's a comforting and mutual suspension of disbelief," my friend says. "Your children are looking for things from you that are not necessarily the truth."

TIMES, TOO, HAVE CHANGED IN A DIFFERENT WAY. The world may be riskier, but teenagers are more risk averse. It's worth remembering this: Most kids are really, really good. "Fewer U.S. high school students are engaging in health risk behaviors compared to their counterparts 15 years ago," noted a press release issued in 2006 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC, which gathers data about risky behavior by teenagers, pointed out that they are much better about using seat belts than teens were a decade and a half ago; just 10 percent of teens regularly drive without seat belts, whereas almost everybody I knew, growing up, failed to use them. Marijuana and cocaine use has not abated in the past decade, but alcohol use has fallen (in 2005, 43 percent of teenagers reported current use, compared with 51 percent in 1991). The percent of high schoolers who have had sex also declined, from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2005. A Child Trends report points out that teenage smoking, pregnancy and violence also have declined, noting that most "American adolescents are psychologically, socially and physically healthy" and that "parent-child interactions and bonding greatly influence adolescents' choices and attitudes."

This is heartening news. It also means that many mothers today are in the odd position of having been more experimental than their own sons and daughters. Which introduces another quandary. I talked to two mothers of high-school-aged daughters, both of whom worry, sometimes, that their daughters are too straight, and too intense, and too stressed. The young women are acutely aware that getting to college is more competitive than ever, and that life just seems, for many, a relentlessly serious endeavor. "Loosen up!" one of these mothers said she wants to tell her daughter. "Try some drugs!" She was kidding, but only partly. She does wish her daughter would relax, step out and go to more parties.

"It feels so much more polarized now," said this woman, who went to college with me. At her daughter's high school, she senses, "either people get totally in trouble or they are totally straight arrows. I was a middle person -- when I was growing up the goody-two-shoes were small in number, but so were the crazy people. The distribution of the curve has widened." Part of this may have to do with all the consciousness-raising, zero-tolerance policies and other measures we ourselves have helped put into place. "The culture now has a no-false-steps quality to it," the second mother observed.

This seems to be true even for very young children. I was chatting with Jeff Steele, who helps run D.C. Urban Moms and Dads, and he pointed out that when his young son got sent to the principal's office for some minor infraction, the child came home convinced his life was over. "It became apparent that he had the mind-set that this was a . . . failure that he would never recover from." So Steele, who as a kid had a smart mouth that sometimes got him into fights, "mentioned that I went to the principal's office a lot of times -- he's only in second grade, and I had visits all the way through grade school -- and I think what he took away: First, he was really shocked that I would ever have done that, and then it did make him feel better."

It's important for us super-serious parents to remember that kids transgress and, when they do, that might be a good time to console them with one's own missteps. "Kids mess up," reminded Jennifer Manlove. "They get into situations that they're not able to handle." In those cases -- when the horse is out of the barn -- it could be merciful and humanizing for a mom to acknowledge that she, too, once made a fool of herself over a boy, or even vomited out a car window.

For the most part, though -- let's face it -- anything we did occurred so long ago that it wasn't really us who did it. Witness my stripper friend, who after an hour or so said she'd better be getting home. One glass of wine was more than enough, and there was -- as there always is -- homework to supervise, dishes to wash, laundry to fold.

Our children study us so intently. They notice every facial expression, mostly to determine if we are cranky or if they are in trouble. They know us so well, and yet there's a part of us they'll never have access to, because the truth is, these days, it hardly exists.

Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She can be reached at

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