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Basic Dad: How Honest Should I Be With My Kid About… Me?

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

How honest should I be with my kid about, well… me?

Sometimes I just talk to my kid. She’s only 3 years old, and of course, we cover topics like shapes, colors, Elmo, ponies and princesses. But sometimes, on my way to her daycare, I’ll talk about other things, just because she’s there — who Abraham Lincoln was, the general plot outline of the Back to the Futuretrilogy, things like that.

And sometimes, I talk about me — what I’m feeling, thinking, etc.

Recently, I had to be away for a couple days for a career opportunity, and I mentioned to my daughter that I wouldn’t be home: Daddy had to do some stuff to help his job so he can be happier during the day. I explained further that I’m very happy with her and Mommy, but that Daddy isn’t satisfied with everything in his life and is trying to make it better.

That was pretty much the extent of it, but then, a few weeks later, my daughter told Mommy, “Daddy is sad,” and that we have to help him.

Great, I thought: I’ve unintentionally burdened my toddler with the responsibility of fixing Daddy’s feelings. So I decided that I’ll have to be a bit more careful about what I say when I decide to talk to her, as no kid should have to carry that burden. But at what point can I talk about that stuff with my child? Can I ever admit to them that maybe I’m not all I hoped to be? That I have unresolved regrets? That I’m not always happy? That I’m as flawed as any other human?

How much should my child discover about the real me, and when?

The Expert Advice

Deborah Harms, Child Psychologist: Very early on, young children tend to idealize their parents. They put them on a pedestal and regard them in a very positive light, which is a good thing — something they need to do. As life goes on, though, the child is going to begin to see a parent’s flaws and failures and gradually start to incorporate them into their image of that parent. This is important, because that becomes internalized in the child as their own standard to live up to as an adult. If the image remains totally idealized, they may feel inadequate, so you want it to be modified in the direction of reality as time goes on.

When looking to disclose information, I’d advise parents to ask themselves, “Why do I want to tell this to my child?” And: “How will this be helpful to my child?” Children can pick up on things, so if there’s something like substance abuse in the home, it’s better for the parents to acknowledge to the child that this is a problem and be able to talk to them about it, and what the parents are doing about it.

Now, it has to be tailored to the mental age of the child. If they’re 3 or 4, you’re only going to give them a small dose of information. Talk to them on a level you think they can understand. If they’re a teenager, you’re going to give them more information. For something like depression, you wouldn’t say that to a 5-year-old, but if your child is 10 or 12, they’re going to know something is wrong, so it’s better for you to give them language to think about what’s going on, rather than to leave it to their imagination.

Generally, you want to be honest with your child all along, and address the issues on their level. But you never want to unburden your conscience on them or treat them like a confidante. Don’t use your child as a surrogate parent or surrogate spouse.

Katie Helpley, Family Therapist: Parents should be able to talk to their kids about a negative experience. However, it should be with the tone of, “This is how I learned from it.” Parents have to be careful not to somehow make the child feel that they’re responsible for the way you’re living your life. So you wouldn’t tell them, “Daddy gave up his dream for you,” or that their birth negatively affected your marriage, but you can say that there were some challenges.

No matter what you decide to share, it’s the caregivers’ responsibility to let the child know that they’re safe and loved. The basic goal is to make sure it’s worded in a way that they don’t feel blamed, sometimes even directly saying that it’s not their fault if something negative is being shared, like depression or unhappiness with a career, etc.

Kids pick up on messages that parents never intend to send, and they hold onto that. You can talk about it, but only in an age-appropriate way. With younger kids, especially, you want to be sure that you’re only answering the question that’s being asked: Sometimes, parents can give too much information that a child doesn’t want or need to know. Now, if there’s some sort of obviously shifting dynamic in the home that needs to be addressed, do so, but do it mater-of-factly: You can’t pretend that there’s not a problem if there’s obviously a problem.

There really isn’t any specific age to start disclosing to a child, but you have to be sure that you cater to their level of understanding. It’s more about giving information and less about confiding in them. You wouldn’t tell a 3-year-old that you’re depressed: If you do, it places undue burdens and pressures on the child so they think they have to do something or act a certain way to help the parent. Sometimes, they just don’t have the ability to process that information.

Joan, 87, Mother of Two: It depends upon the situation of the parent. When my husband took off, he took all of our money, and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I was 46 years old and had never worked; my son was away at college, and my daughter was just 11. So for Cindy and I, it was complete honesty from that point forward. I was honest with her about how I was feeling, but I didn’t want her to be afraid. So I told her that I’d take care of it.

The way I was raised, I was very naïve: My parents, pardon my French, wouldn’t have said shit if they had a mouthful. I think that’s totally unfair to a child — to leave them that naive. As soon as they’re open to understanding, you can share things with your child that happened in your life, things you were disappointed in or things that you expected that didn’t happen, things that hurt as well as things that were good. You don’t have to give them the whole ball of wax or anything, but I think you can start sharing that stuff at 10 or 12, but start softly. Don’t lie to them, but don’t make it a Dracula movie where everything is horrible either.

I think the child should know right from the start that a parent isn’t perfect. I always say this, and it’s something I live by: “I never profess sanity or perfection, because I can’t live up to either one.”

Cindy (Joan’s Daughter), 51, Mother of One: It was a different world for me growing up. Mom was divorced at 46 and she was new to working, so the struggles she went through, I went through. For me and my daughter, I wanted to be just as open. I can’t imagine not being honest with my daughter. I don’t remember ever not being me.

Of course, coming out was a bit of a challenge because I didn’t realize it until I was older. But once I realized it, I told her. It was her freshman year of high school, and I had no hesitation at all about telling her. She was happy for me because she’d known I wasn’t happy, and she was glad that I’d figured out why. Even before then, though, she could tell I wasn’t happy because we always talked, much like my mom and I — we didn’t have any secrets.

I don’t have any hesitation with Sam. None whatsoever. I’m sure she didn’t want me to be so honest all the time, but I can’t help it.

Sam (Cindy’s Daughter, Joan’s Granddaughter), 26: Growing up, it was almost like Gilmore Girls, where the mother and daughter were more like friends. I mean, she was always Mom and she was always in charge, but I think that because she opened up with me, it made me want to open up with her.

There were times, like when my parents got divorced when I was 15, that she would be obviously distraught and I felt like there was nothing I could do, so that was challenging. But she did a good job of letting me know what her emotions were, but not making me think I had to fix them for her. Even now, she’ll call me and vent about work, or I’ll call her and tell her about what’s going on with me and my husband. It’s always been the case that we open up about those things, but we don’t have to have a solution for them.