“Pshhhh Pshhh Sssss Pshhhh.”
They were playfully whispering in each other's ears.
Then, I heard, “Don’t tell your mama. It will be our little secret.”
It certainly had an innocent intent coming from my mom. But - BUT - it stirred up something inside of me.
I worried my kids would think it was okay to hide things from me. That secrets were silly, safe, and appropriate. I couldn’t help but speak up.
“Please, don’t tell my kids to keep secrets from me. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with that message.”
My mom’s eyes grew wide as if she just realized what her words implied. “I am so sorry. I never meant … I didn’t mean … boys, I messed up … we don’t want to keep secrets from your mom … from anyone.”
Safe Adults Don’t Keep Secrets
I had two options right then, and I chose to give my mom some grace and also use it as a teachable moment for all of us. I know that my mom would never seriously imply my children hold back from me, yet, even in play, secrets are not okay. Not in my book.
Instead, we do surprises.
There is an important difference between “don’t tell mom and dad” and surprises.
Surprises are things that will be revealed. Secrets are those that will not.
Holiday gift? That’s a surprise.
A birthday party? That’s a surprise.
A new puppy? That’s a surprise.
Eating a bunch of candy and drinking soda pop at Grandpa’s house and hiding it because Grandpa told you mom wouldn’t like it and to keep that between just you two? That’s a secret.
While that may seem like a mild example, the intent of withholding information is the same and this confuses a child’s loyalty. When children learn that this is a normal part of a parent-child relationship, these little white lies can stack.
And they can stack into something more serious and dangerous. In fact, they can be a key ingredient to abuse. The pressure of “keeping a secret” can prevent a child from telling someone something important or get in the way of keeping them safe or cause hesitation when asking for help.
Secrets can also play one parent over another, especially when it comes to parents who are split or divorced. We don’t want to give our children the responsibility of carrying a bag of our secrets, and we don’t want to force them into a corner where they feel they must choose one parent over another.
Safe adults don't ask children to keep secrets. They just don’t.
Have this conversation with your child. Have it with family members and close friends. Get on the same page.
Encourage open communication with your child and create a safe environment for them to share their feelings and mistakes. Share your own feelings and mistakes and answer questions in age and developmentally-appropriate ways.
These little rituals help children check in to their internal guidance system - aka their feelings - and process them with you.