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Please Don’t Ask My Child to Keep Secrets

This morning, BabyC, Yuba the dog, and I were playing in our neighborhood meadow. Those of you who were aghast or concerned about our letting BabyC climb on our furniture will be happy to know that we have found the perfect toddler climbing tree at the meadow. She makes a beeline for this tree every morning, and she practices climbing up and down the ladder-like sideways branches.

Can you spot the toddler on a mission?

There are often other kids at the meadow, and they like this tree, too. BabyC watches with big eyes as the older kids climb higher than she thought possible. Yesterday, she climbed right into a group of big kids, and one of them accidentally knocked her off her low branch. She whimpered, and then we brushed off her knees and she tried again. I love watching this kid work.

Anyway, back to this morning. BabyC was climbing, and I was standing where I could both throw the frisbee for Yuba into the open part of the meadow and keep an eye on BabyC. On our way into the meadow, we had said hello to a middle-aged woman and two elementary-aged kids. They were now playing in trees out of sight but within earshot from us.

I could tell that the woman and children were having an earnest conversation, but I wasn’t following it. Then I heard the woman say,

“I’ll tell you, but it is a secret. You can’t tell your parents. They might not understand.”

This stopped me in my tracks. The secret turned out to be something philosophical about the key to living a happy life and staying a kid forever. This woman was probably an aunt or a babysitter, and I’m sure she meant no harm. Maybe she presented this as a secret just to get the kids’ attention.

I knew all of this, but in my gut, I felt intensely uncomfortable with this conversation. All I could think of was the Penn State sex abuse scandal, where the worst kind of secrets allowed a man to get away with unthinkable acts for 15 years.

Please don’t ask my child to keep secrets.

I don’t care if you are sharing the secret to a happy life or having ice cream for breakfast or staying up 2 hours past bedtime. In our family, we don’t need secrets. Not between Mama and Daddy, not between BabyC and anyone else. I don’t care how benign they may seem. I want BabyC to know that she can share anything with us.

My question is, how do I teach this to BabyC? At 20 months, I think she’s too young to understand even the concept of a secret right now. If we don’t want them in our family, how do I introduce the concept? I like to think that being willing to talk about anything with as little judgement as possible is the first step. At some point, though, we have to talk about this topic more directly.

When do you think it is appropriate to start talking to kids about hurtful secrets? Can you think of useful examples that aren’t as scary as Jerry Sandusky?

37 Comments
  1. my son has become especially verbal (he’s close to 4) and I do think he understands me pretty well when I discuss why we don’t call people stupid, very general ethics like that. Just as we don’t want to hurt other people’s bodies, we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. (What makes you mad? what makes you sad? You don’t want to make other people mad/sad, do you?) And while secrets can be as awful as abuse, they can also be smaller things that might hurt friends’ feelings.

    I have not had a conversation with him about secrets, and I think I will have one with him the next time the context presents itself.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • It is definitely a tricky topic, and I think it will be a while before BabyC is ready to understand it. You son sounds like he may be ready to comprehend it. At BabyC’s age, I think it is just about setting the example of having open conversations in our home and avoiding things like saying, “I’ll give you some ice cream, but don’t tell Mama.” It is helpful to read how others have approached this topic, so I’ll be ready(ish) when the time comes.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  2. Colleen #

    Just last night we established a “secret word” with Henry, who is 3. We were talking about strangers, and how he should ONLY go with a stranger if they knew the secret word. We told him not to tell any of his friends, or his teachers, or anybody else, just between us. But yeah, every time I hear about the Sandusky case I cover my ears and shout “la, la, la”. And then I think about ways to make sure this never, ever, ever happens to my kids. I think having a secret word (or a safe word) is one way…

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • Colleen #

      p.s. Regarding hurtful secrets, which is what you actually asked, I’m not sure yet, but I think we’re very, very close. I’m not sure how to broach the subject of inappropriate touching. Maybe there’s a child psychologist who has some good ideas?

      Like

      July 13, 2012
      • Although most everyone has an opinion positive or negative about Planned Parenthood, they do have excellent resources on how to teach sexual education at home. They have entire packets of information available and it covers how to approach the subjects in developmentally appropriate ways.

        Like

        July 22, 2012
        • Thanks Meghan, that’s great to know! I’ll check out their resources.

          Like

          July 28, 2012
    • I like this idea, but unfortunately it doesn’t protect kids from people that they do know who may cause them harm. It’s definitely a start, though. I also read somewhere some advice to give your kids if they are ever lost or in a situation where they need help and you aren’t around. Tell them to look for another mother or father, someone else with kids. Another mother is more likely to be safe, to understand the problem, and to have the empathy to help.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
      • Michele Hays #

        Our rule for when my son got lost (now he’s old enough to have a cell phone, eep!) was to find someone in a uniform who might have a walkie-talkie, or be behind a counter: a police officer, a store employee, etc. We would make sure to point out what the employees and security looked like wherever we went and go over the rule, which was find them and give them our phone number. We also put all our cell numbers on the answering machine message and vice versa, so he only had to memorize one number.

        This did bear fruit once when he was lost in Wal-Mart! We got a call from our very upset son (who the employee had taken to the information desk,) but it all worked out.

        Like

        July 15, 2012
  3. I taught my daughter about the difference between a surprise and a secret. Surprises are only kept for a short time and then every body gets to know about them. She knows that we can and do talk about everything when we’re at home and it’s just us. I’ve never asked her not to tell her dad anything,and I don’t believe my husband’s ever asked her not to tell me anything, either. We don’t swear in front of her, but when she’s heard a word, she knows that she can ask us what it means without any chance of being in trouble for saying it. Of course, we tell her which words are likelyt to get her in trouble at school and that we’d prefer she not say those in front of her grandparents, too, but we’ve never threatened her with punishments if she ever said the words at home. We emphasize being respectful and kind to each other and focus on healthy boundaries in relationships.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • This difference between a surprise and a secret is an important distinction – one that could be confused by kids but you explained it well.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  4. When they were young, I always said to my kids “Nobody should ever ask you to keep a secret that makes you feel yucky inside” and “Nothing is ever so bad that you shouldn’t talk about it”. Now they are a little older, and have asked the ‘where do babies come from’ question (and had a comprehensive answer) I have spoken to them about inappropriate behaviour and touching, and reinforced the message that if anyone, especially someone older than them, makes them feel uncomfortable, they can talk to me about it and we can make a good decision together about how to handle it. That way it covers minor stuff (like a friends’ parents who might have different ‘rules’ at their house, where we can decide that it is OK) and major stuff like inappropriate behaviour by an adult they know.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • I definitely like your approach. I suppose it isn’t realistic to ask kids to never keep any secrets – at least once they reach a certain age. Their friends are going to tell them little secrets that are benign, so your distinction about “yucky” secrets is a good one.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  5. My sonis 8 and from early on we’ve talkec about surprises vs secrets He was pretty quick on being able to tell the differenceby age 3 or so. Surprises wwere the presentfor Daddy that he would open on his birthday. Secrets you should tell mom or dad about because we need to know too. To the best ofmy knowledge at age 8 he is still doing this. We did have a talk about Jerry Sandusky by name and position (coach) because he hadheard about yhe Freeh report on thenews and wantec to know what it was about. It wasanoccassion to reinforce not keeping secrets.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
  6. Erin #

    I’m a counseling psychology graduate student. Many of my classes are devoted to children and developmental psychology. There are a few things to remember about kids in general. First of all, for those of you who subscribe to Piagetan developmental theory, kids have not developed enough cognitively to understand concepts like ‘why’ or ‘when’. Kids are pretty good with who, what, and how. Because they lack abstract reasoning ability, kids are kind of at a disadvantage when they try to think about alternative outcomes, prediction, cause and effect, and many moral issues besides the basic rights and wrongs. Because of this, in my opinion, it is important to establish healthy dialogue with kids about their ‘private parts’ from a pretty early age. Most kids understand the concept of a secret by about age 36 months, when they start becoming more and more verbal. With my own son, who is 4, I have discussed that we don’t keep secrets unless they are surprises like gifts: “We bought that present for Daddy for his birthday but we don’t want to tell him what it is because it is a surprise.” Mommy and Daddy don’t keep secrets from him, and he shouldn’t feel he needs to keep secrets from us. It’s also important to teach your child the correct anatomical names for their genitalia when they begin to be curious about it and the differences between their ‘private parts’ and those of the opposite sex. It’s pretty natural during the course of potty training to broach the subject of who should and should not be touching your child’s private parts. That is my advice, for whatever it is worth.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • Erin, thanks so much for your thoughts on this and for providing some of the developmental context. I don’t want to bring this topic up with BabyC until she’s capable of comprehending it – otherwise it may just create fear and stress for her.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  7. izzybellestrendytots #

    We started out telling our kids that we live them no matter what. Then, as my daughter got a little older, taught her that she can tell us anything and we will always live her. We talk about her being in charge of her body. No body is allowed to do anything to her body without her permission. At around 4 years, we began stranger danger and no secrets. I started trying to differentiate between secrets and surprises, but she couldn’t keep surprises anyway, so we just moved on to no secrets from mommy and / or daddy…. Ever. There is nothing she can say/do that will make us love her any less. Cat the same time, there are consequences to her choices and behavior.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
  8. There are excellent children’s books that address this issue. I think one we had was called do you want to know a secret and talked about good and bad secrets. Good as in a secret surprise party bad as in just bad…..Really well done. Another might have been called Sams Secret. Self help book stores have many children’s books for addressing stuff like this. Like your post!

    Like

    July 13, 2012
  9. henwhen #

    I think that later on in her life, the biggest key to having a child who is willing to share secrets will be your reaction. I used to tell my dad all the time that if he wanted to know what was going on in my life he had to be able to “listen without yelling.”. If he could calmly discuss I was perfectly happy to tell him anything he might ever want to know…the moment he started yelling I shut him out.

    Like

    July 13, 2012
    • This is so true, and it holds for every aspect of a trusting relationship.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  10. Michele Hays #

    We live in what’s euphemistically referred to as a “transitioning” neighborhood – so I took personal safety VERY seriously. In your situation, I might have politely suggested to the woman that her choice of words was a bit shocking to a parent AND to many kids, and perhaps she should consider different language in the future.

    What I told my son when he was little: our ‘house rule’ is – no secrets from Mom and Dad. Sometimes we might keep a surprise secret from one or the other of us, like presents, but if somebody asks him to “keep a secret” he has to tell one of us. This actually gets more difficult as he got older, because kids keep secrets all the time, so we also made an agreement that we will respect the privacy of anyone telling him a secret. To relieve him of the responsibility of figuring out which secrets are “important,” we made an across-the-board rule.

    A corollary to that rule: he can refuse any “secret” and tell anybody directly what our “house rule” is and that he will follow it. We also told him that it’s OK to tell a secret, even if he agreed to it, because it’s wrong for someone to ask him to break a ‘house rule.’ When he got a little older, we talked about boundaries and limits, and that people who don’t respect the boundary of the ‘house rule’ may not be respectful in other ways, and might be people to avoid (we discussed some specific situations, too.)

    I think it’s important to wait for the right moment in development for this conversation – I didn’t want my child to grow up fearful and suspicious of all strangers, so I took on the responsibility of watching him and the people around him when we were in public places – when he was old enough for some independence, we had the discussion.

    Like

    July 14, 2012
    • Michelle, I’m not sure I would have the guts to talk with the woman about this. Maybe I should have, in hindsight. That is always a tough one for me. I hate confrontation, particularly with strangers. On the other hand, I don’t think she meant any harm, and if I were her, I would want to know that my wording was inappropriate. I love hearing about your approach with your son, and I like how you reworked it as new issues and understanding emerged.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  11. kathleen Beaulieu #

    Well you certainly got me thinking of my approach ! I teach at a preschool and as a lead in to get a child’s attention I’d say I have a secret ~ when they came over I’d give them a hug ~ it started with a particular child who did that with me ~ I realize now that saying that could make them comfortable hearing from an adult other than their parents ~ especially coming from one they know and trust ! I never have said it’s a secret not to tell anyone ~ still I see the possible danger and will use a different approach ! I continue to learn and grow every day ~ thank you for this eye opener !

    Like

    July 14, 2012
    • Like many “secrets,” yours seems completely benign (and fun), but I agree that you should consider using different wording. It honestly wasn’t anything I had thought about until recently either, and now I’m really noticing how often adults use the word with kids. You’re welcome – glad I could make you think – and thank YOU for reading and sharing your comment:)

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  12. thecoastallivingmom #

    Reblogged this on TheCoastalLivingMom and commented:
    As noted in my recent blog post, please consider this concept and how it might relate to your own parenting practice. – TCLM

    Like

    July 14, 2012
    • Thanks for sharing my post with your readers! I’ve enjoyed the conversation around this important topic.

      Like

      July 14, 2012
  13. Alex #

    I love this post. I certainly would not want anyone telling my kids that they need to keep secrets from their parents. Especially not with the reason that “they might not understand”.

    However, I have in the past asked my kids to keep secrets. But more along the lines of “don’t tell your brother what we’re getting him for his birthday”

    Like

    July 15, 2012
  14. From what I understand, the main reason to be sure that no secrets is an absolute rule is because of predators like Jerry Sandusky. There is a great, (but very serious—and scary) resource called Megan’s Law about protecting children from predators. Below is rule #7.

    Rule 7 – No Secrets
    Some parents believe that they can teach good secrets and bad secrets. I believe that a child should not be expected to keep any secret at all. I have always told parents to explain to their children, quite simply, that secrets are against the rules. They can’t tell them and if someone asks them to keep a secret, they are not allowed to. When I am out in the community conducting prevention workshops, parents will test the secret rule by asking if it is okay to keep a surprise party a secret. For whatever reason you conjure up, especially surprise parties, there is no reason why a child should be expected to keep a secret. 

    Like

    July 15, 2012
  15. clare #

    A wise friend once had this very conversation with me. She said if you can reframe it “nice surprise” then that’s ok (eg what daddy’s gift will be) but “secrets” are not ok.

    Like

    July 15, 2012
    • clare #

      Sorry, this page hadn’t displayed all the other comments when I posted. Having read through I agree that an absolute no secrets rule is probably the best thing.

      Like

      July 15, 2012
  16. kamellia73 #

    Interesting post! This brings up the subject of “stranger danger.” So often, kids get taught to not talk to strangers. And while we want to teach kids “street smarts” and caution, we also want them to see the world as a good place. Recently, I heard about reframing strangers to “tricky people” and Checklist Mommy’s blog post sums it up really well: http://www.checklistmommy.com/2012/02/09/tricky-people-are-the-new-strangers/.

    Anybody who asks a kid to keep a secret/ not tell parents gets a red flag, stranger or not.

    Like

    July 15, 2012
  17. Mo312 #

    I work at a pediatric urgent care as a nurse and also have a 3 year old daughter of my own. There are times that as a nurse i need to see parts of a child’s body that a stranger should not see and i make a point of telling them before, “you know no one should EVER look or touch under your clothes without your mommy or daddy’s permission” then i turn and ask the parents (who always smile/try not to laugh) i then like to talk about “safe people” A safe person, like mommy and daddy, teachers and nurses are people who are secret keepers. If someone ever tells you a secret that you don’t like, or you don’t think should be a secret you can tell a “safe person” and it doesn’t count as telling the secret.

    Like

    July 16, 2012
  18. mt #

    I agree with you that the conversation you overheard was disturbing, and that any adult asking a child to keep a secret between them or from their parents is inappropriate. That said, I don’t think secrets in and of themselves are bad, between husbands and wives or between children and parents. I think people should have some kind of private inner life, and seeing that develop in a child is bittersweet…I nearly wept when I saw my 7-week-old son playing along with his mobile; he was constructing his interior world, one in which I am not always immediately present. I was no longer his whole world. It was beautiful and slightly sad. But I think it is important that children (and spouses) have an independent sense of self.

    *That said,* I think it is also crucial for my husband and son to *always* feel comfortable sharing *anything they want* with me–things that may be embarrassing, upsetting, hard to articulate. I want them to know that I will listen with love. And of course, I want to teach my son the things he *needs* to tell me–his friend’s house isn’t safe, he feels uncomfortable around Adult X, etc.

    But I accept that there are things he will never tell me, sides of himself he will probably not show me. Joan Didion wrote of the sadness parents feel when they realize that near-strangers see certain aspects of our children that we never see. But that’s probably ok and normal. I guess, like so much in parenting, it’s all about striking a balance–here it’s between facilitating their own selfhood and encouraging them to share when it’s necessary and appropriate. If only there were a formula suss out the right reaction for every situation!

    Like

    July 24, 2012
    • mt – You make a wonderful point and bring much more nuance to the conversation. Thank you. I agree that we should encourage our children to cultivate an inner life and independent sense of self, in part by showing them that we have our own. The tricky part is to help a child learn the difference between something they keep to themselves just because it is private to them and something that someone else asks them to keep secret. That’s an important distinction. I think it is fair to tell a young child that no adult should ask him to keep secrets and to have a family rule that he needs to share such a secret with mom or dad. Of course things get muddier as kids get older. I fully expect BabyC to keep lots of things from me when she is an adolescent, but by then I hope that we’ve taught her which are the really essential, dangerous secrets that she should always feel comfortable sharing.

      But the inner life, the independent sense of self – that should absolutely be encouraged. When I was a child, I had a vast world created on my own during imaginative play, and I don’t remember the adults in my life really digging to find out where my mind was going during that time or telling me that I should be spending it differently. What a wonderful gift that was.

      Like

      July 28, 2012
  19. Danielle Johnson #

    Our children need to know what their private areas are named (penis, vagina, breasts, etc) and that these are private areas.No one is to touch them. They are their areas alone. If they want to touch them they are to do it in a private place like their room or the bathroom. My daughter is now 6. I started having these ‘talks’ with her soon as I knew she could understand me and when I noticed her starting to explore those private areas of her body, she was about 2 and a half. I learned to my personal horror in my Early Childhood Education Course (only as a result of being sexually abused as a very young child myself, fearing the worst for my children and hoping this wasn’t something I would have to ‘deal with’ for some time) children get curious about their privates and others at a very young age. It’s teaching those boundaries that are important. That people trying to make you keep inappropriate secrets are not okay. That nothing should be secret from Mommy and Daddy. She can talk to me about anything. It seems almost too much to fathom. Unfortunately it’s reality. We have to, it’s our responsibility to protect our children and teach them to protect themselves. Like I have told my daughter, I won’t always be there to stop someone from hurting you but I will always be here to stop it from happening again, I can’t help you if there are secrets between us.

    Like

    November 15, 2012
  20. We have always told our children (7 and 10) that they can tell us anything and if someone tells them to keep a secret from their parents it is not okay. Most likely, if they can’t tell us about it then it’s something bad. Well, my children just spent a week with my mother. She lives in a different state so we have limited contact (which is good since we have a pretty bad relationship). After a phone call with my kids where they asked me for help with an argument all hell broke loose. They were bickering over who had the longest turn on a video game. At home, if they don’t work it out we use a timer or turn it off. My son asked me to ask grandma to do this. I was never upset about anything, just passing on my son’s request because he didn’t want to ask himself. Apparently, I was completely out of line. When I got off the phone she went on a rant. I don’t know exactly what was said because (here is the best part) my daughter was made to promise that she wouldn’t tell me about anything bad that happened. My mom said it was over and it was their secret. She also sent me a text telling me they were having a great time until I had to ‘interfere’. I would have never thought that she would tell my kids to keep secrets from me! My daughter is completely guilt ridden and in tears because she wants to tell me but she promised she wouldn’t. Guess who is not getting unsupervised visits with my children again!

    Like

    July 22, 2013
  21. Elizabeth #

    My husband has often asked our kids not to tell me things. Age 5: ‘don’t tell Mom I was letting you ride the four-wheeler without a helmet when you ran it through a barbed wire fence and got your face scratched up’ eventually turned into Age 16: ‘don’t tell Mom I took you to a cannabis cafe in Amsterdam where I had a seizure and you didn’t know the language and had no idea what to do.’ I kid you not. Of course, the kids (I’m assuming) almost always told me stuff, and my husband and I would have a huge fight, then he’d jump all over them for telling me. Did not make for a good parenting partnership, and our kids were the ones who suffered most from it. It made us very easy to play one against the other. Of course, they’re all grown up now and turned out fine, so, who knows?

    Like

    October 26, 2013

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