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The Hypocrite’s Guide to Parenting

How to help your kid do better, even if he’s following in your terrible footsteps

Teenager being lifted in mosh pit
Getty Images

Adam, 54, still fondly recalls the debauchery of his first Lollapalooza in 1992. “I did every drug I could get my hands on,” he says. “Had all kinds of risky sex with strangers, and even did some grand theft larceny.” (It was a friend's van.) “I wouldn't do it over again, obviously, but I’m glad I have those war stories.”

Thirty years later, Adam’s 18-year-old son went to his first Lollapalooza. “I wanted him to have a good time and make some memories,” Adam says. “Just not the same ones I did.”

One of his dad friends reminded him that kids learn from making mistakes. You gotta burn your hand on the stove before you figure it out. “He’s right,” Adam concedes. “But there’s a difference between burning your hand on a stove and sleeping with a woman with a face tattoo and a Ministry T-shirt you just met in the mosh pit.”

What’s a dad to do when his kids are on the precipice of making the same boneheaded (if fun) mistakes that he made at their age? Here’s how to navigate this parenting minefield:

Don’t make yourself the bad guy 

Using yourself as a cautionary tale doesn’t mean casting yourself as the villain. Avoid putting on a show of exaggerated regret (“I was such a loser!”) about your past indiscretions. This is your kid, not your parole officer.

“Instead, treat mistakes as experiences of value, as an invaluable source of education,” advises Carl Pickhardt, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist and author of Holding On While Letting Go: Parenting Your Child Through the Four Freedoms of Adolescence. We all screw up, and we all regret screwing up. But this isn’t about making yourself the Prison Mike in some Scared Straight! one-act.

Frame mistakes as “a choice people would make differently if they could do it over again,” Pickhardt adds. Focus on what you learned from the mistake, what value can be taken from it, not just that you royally messed up.

Pickhardt learned this at age 14, when his mom confessed to him that she’d recently been arrested for drunk driving and threatening a police officer. She didn’t make excuses or even bemoan her terrible decisions. She just said, “I thought you should know what can happen.”

It did the trick. “I did my share of adolescent adventuring growing up,” Pickhardt says. “But drinking and driving was not among them.”

Remind them that we’re all still learning

“I believe it works best when parents cast mistake-making in a human light,” Pickhardt says. “We’ll never experience it all, we’ll never know it all, we’ll never master it all, we’ll never get it all right. Neither one of us will ever get all A’s.”

Pickhardt recalls counseling a dad and his troubled 19-year-old son, who had “once again chosen his way into difficulty,” Pickhardt says. (That’s therapist-speak for “that boy done f***ed up again.”) The son was beating up on himself for being a failure, until his dad stopped him. 

“I continue to fumble my way through life, and expect you will, too,” he told his son. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not making and learning from mistakes, you’re not doing life right.”

This was all the son needed. Kids don’t always want our lectures or warnings. Sometimes they just need to know that they’re not alone.

Give them the advice you wish someone had told you

Before his son went off to Lollapalooza, Adam didn’t give him dad advice like “Don’t do drugs.” Instead, he told him what he wished his own dad had told him back in ’92.

“I told him, ‘You can always leave,’” Adam recalls. “‘The gates aren’t locked. Trust your gut. Fun can turn dangerous real fast, and you don’t have to stick around to see how it turns out.’”

Adam’s son returned unscathed from the rock festival, and while he wouldn’t share details, he did let it slip that he’d left early, calling himself an Uber before his friends were ready to leave.

 His kid, now 19, is going back to Lollapalooza this summer, where he’ll get another chance to make terrible choices. Adam hasn’t decided yet what advice he’ll give him. “I was thinking maybe, ‘The girl with the nose ring that you’ll mash faces with behind the porta-potties doesn’t really love you,’” he says with a laugh. “Man, I wish somebody had told me that.”

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood