Saturday, May 24, 2014

How Open Should We Be With Our Children?

How open should we be with our children? Should we share everything we know about life? Or should we leave some of it for the children to discover for themselves? Reading this post by Julie Deneen made me think about that question again.

While this is not the central theme of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain, it is one of the topics that I cover. How does one raise an independent and spirited young woman in the 19th century if one is a filibuster or a privateer? What should we tell our sons and daughters about love, sex, and personal responsibility? If we tell them too much, will it harm them? If we share too little, will they fall into avoidable traps?

Detail Representing Denise Laffite from a painting by Colleen Dick
Theodosia Burr Alston had a very devoted, liberal, open-minded father. He was not perfect, but he was honest with her to an unusual degree. After her mother's death, he did not remarry. He was a freethinker, and he brought up his daughter to question everything and accept nothing on faith.

It is good to be honest with our children. But did Burr damage Theodosia in any way by letting her know that he had mistresses and that he frequented brothels? Would it have been easier for her to separate and individuate, if he had not freely shared with her so much about his life? As the teenagers nowadays like to say: TMI! She must, at times, have been deeply embarrassed by some of his letters from Europe.

Jean Laffite was also a father. But I think he was more the traditional type: providing well for his children, showing them affection when he met with them, but being gone for long periods of time and not discussing anything unseemly with them.

So which is better: total honesty or a little bit of repression and subterfuge, avoiding full disclosure?

In my experience, people whose parents share a lot with them are actually more likely to be a little gun-shy and wary. Knowledge does not necessarily lead to experimentation. It can lead to being more picky and careful. It can also lead to delayed maturation, because without the drive to rebel against your parents, there is less of a desire to experiment and find out for yourself.

In my experience, more traditional-minded parents drive their children into early experimentation, which is why all the born-again Christians I know are actually not all that repressed in their behavior, and they only give lip service to the chastity they supposedly believe in. Unexpected motherhood comes often to the faithful.

But here's the irony: the unintentional results of the search for pleasure can be blessings in disguise. The safety and security that come from a lack of desire to experiment can actually be stultifying. So repressing your children and driving them to mature early may not be such a bad course of conduct, counter-intuitive as it sounds. You do not want them to never leave the nest and never have a life of their own, do you?

Both mothers and fathers can be guilty of too close a relationship with their children which hinders their emotional growth. While I did not depict this in my novel, historical accounts indicate that Jules Laffite, Jean's youngest surviving child, was so close to his mother, Emma Mortimore Laffite, that he did not marry until after she died.

Maybe, as with many other aspects of life, this calls for a happy medium. I don't think we should lie to our children, but we probably shouldn't share everything with them, either. And even if your instincts are to be open and honest, remember:  a little repression might just be the right thing, if you ever want to see grandchildren in your own lifetime!


  1. I have seen the gamut of extremes both ways. I do not necessarily think any parent should be sad if they do not have grandchildren as there are other relatives who will procreate. One thing that does feel uncomfortable is when I hear parents having a discussion with their three year olds about whether they should go shopping now, or not to be upset we are not going to the park. I noticed parents like this often have kids who cry, or act out because they know there is a lack of parental leadership. I think some parents are so focused on wanting to be the nice guy and buddy buddy with their kids, they might share a bit much. I really do not feel comfortable with the totally repressed family dynamic, either. There is room in between both of these polar points, in my opinion.

    1. Hi, Julia, I agree. There is room between the two extremes for people to find what is right for them and their children. And a parent who defers too much to a toddler in the area of decision making is abdicating parental responsibility.