Today’s guest post is the seventh in our “How do I talk to my child about?” series.
We’ve talked about bad language, disabilities, divorce, adoption, death, race, religion, and today we’re sharing about good vs. bad secret keeping.
Our guest blogger is Mark, a former elementary school principal and father of four grown-up kids. He’s better known in my family as a local surrogate grandparent and a fabulous free babysitter, which makes him a pretty popular guy. You can check out his blog, Christian Parenting for Today.
When a secret is needed to produce a surprise, it can be fun. Surprise parties, the unexpected return of a loved one, special milestone events and thoughtful gifts can often be enhanced with the element of surprise.
But when a secret hides inappropriate behavior, abuse, pain or causes continued shame, it can be devastating.
Most parents I talk to think their children clearly understand the difference between a good and bad secret. But my 30 years of
experience seems to indicate otherwise. I think there are three issues that keep a child bound and vulnerable to keeping bad secrets.
- They do not have an understanding of the difference between good and bad secrets.
- They are not emotionally strong enough to resist pressure to keep a bad secret.
- They have been given mixed messages about secrets from the adults in their life.
Helping to protect the fun and innocence of childhood by preserving good and exposing bad secrets takes a strong bond, along with some teaching and reinforcing by parents. Perhaps it may even require a change in behavior by parents, but is well worth the effort.
Begin by understanding the difference between good and bad secrets and how children are manipulated into keeping bad secrets. Next, teach your child how to recognize and resist those who will ask her to keep bad secrets. Follow your teaching with a promise to her that you will love her no matter what secret she has to reveal to you! Finally, examine your own behavior
and if needed, confess and make restitution to free yourself and protect your children.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND BAD SECRETS
AND WHAT TO TEACH YOUR CHILDREN
Good Secret: Any secret that has a specific point in time (nearly always – the near future) when it will be revealed. Good secrets are ALWAYS temporary. Kids love surprises so this is often an easy concept for them. However, depending on the age, it may be difficult to understand that good secrets will always be revealed at a certain time.
Here are a few examples:
- Dad brings home a dozen roses, he tells your children: “Don’t tell Mom, it is our secret. When she walks into the kitchen she will see them and be surprised.” At the specific point when Mom walks into the kitchen the secrete will be revealed.
- Surprise birthday parties will be revealed on the day of the party.
- A favorite Uncle, Dad’s brother is coming to visit but Mom says don’t tell Dad so it is a surprise. When the Uncle walks through the door the secret will be revealed.
Bad Secret: Any secret that a child is expected to keep for a long time or forever. Nearly all bad secrets keep something hidden that is bad.
Examples of bad secrets:
- A boy keeps pushing your sister on the bus. He says never to tell anyone or else he will really hurt her.
- A neighbor backs up his car and hits another neighbor’s car. He gets out of the car and gives you $20 and says “it is our little secret.” Never tell anyone.
- You and a friend were in a fight at recess. The recess monitor has you both up against the school wall and is really mad. When your friend rolls his eyes, the monitor grabs him and swears at him. Then the monitor gets upset apologizes and cries. She says she could lose her job and be in real trouble if you say anything. She pleads with you both to keep her behavior a secret or else it will be really bad for her and she will make sure you both get in big trouble.
Many parents feel at a loss as to how to prepare their child emotionally for the difficulties in life. One of which is the pressure of adults or other children who want them to keep a bad secret. There is no replacement for spending quality time and bonding with your child. The trust built during those times will help your child be emotionally strong in many situations. However, I also believe in giving a child knowledge that can help them prepare for those who do not have their best interests in mind.
You would be wise to equip your child with an understanding of the tactics used by those who may want them to keep a bad secret. Many of the following tactics are similar and often several are used at once. However, explaining them separately helps a child better understand and be resilient and ready for anyone who would desire to take advantage of them.
Guilt – make the child feel responsible for what may happen if the secret is revealed. Or make the child feel partially responsible for what happened and now needs to stay a secret – “you were with me when the fire was started so if anyone finds out you are in just as much trouble.”
Pleading – play on the good nature and desire of a child to want to help – “I know you are a good girl, please never, never tell
Intimidation/Fear – use of a physical, emotional or social power to intimidate or bring fear if a secret is revealed – I will hurt you, your sibling, your parents, etc.
Exclusivity – make the child feel like they are special or part of something that is special if they keep the secret, or even convince them that they are the only one that can help them by keeping the secret. You can be part of our Club, we are now special friends so we keep secrets, you are grown up and very special because you are going to keep this secret, etc.
Threatening with the loss of status or reputation– similar to intimidation, but tends to be very personal and emotional – your Mom will no longer be proud of you, your Dad will be ashamed of you, no one will like you ever again, everyone will think you are dirty and awful, etc.
Denial – I will deny it and no one will believe you. To avoid confusion, explain the difference between a private matter which should not be shared with others and a bad secret
Private Matter: Only family and occasionally close friends need to know about private matters – but mom or dad always know.
Example: A 4th-grade sister has to wear pull-ups each night.
Mom and Dad know, adult relatives know, her doctor knows, and even close
friends who watch her overnight know, but your friends do not need to know
because it is a private matter.
Bad Secret: A group of “friends” may know but adults and those in authority are not to know.
Example: A neighbor stole a bike and is hiding it in the woods and tells you and a small group of boys to keep it a secret. Because no adult or anyone in authority knows, it is a bad secret.
NO SECRET WILL KEEP YOU FROM LOVING YOUR CHILD
Once you have taught about good and bad secrets you need to let your child know that despite any secret they reveal, even if it hurts you to find out, you will always, always love them! This assurance can make the difference in helping your child be emotionally strong enough to tell you about a bad secret. Remember that revealing the bad secret will be very difficult for
your child. How much more difficult if they feel like upon its revelation you will be angry or will no longer love them?
Let’s be honest. There are some secrets that may be very upsetting to both you and your child if you find out. Let’s look at an example. Your 12-year-old attended a sleepover. An older sibling of the host child provided beer and all the children including your child drank. The older child threatened all the kids and told them they better not be a baby and tell their parents. Besides, if they do he will make sure school life for any tattletale will be miserable for the rest of the year
Your child will be feeling serious pressure not to tell the bad secret. Both because he participated and because he was threatened and does not want to be called a “baby” or have the older child harass him at school. You are likely to be upset about your child’s choice to participate. Your son may fear you will get very angry when he tells you. He may be distraught at the likelihood of a severe punishment or having to hear you yell or scream at him. The fear of your reaction weakens his emotional strength and will likely keep him silent.
To avoid such a scenario, this is what I suggest you do. Be honest and let your child know that sometimes it is going to be difficult to reveal bad secrets. Some bad secrets may even get you upset. Let them know that there may be some secrets they keep that upon telling you, may hurt you deeply. Then you should enter into an agreement, maybe more like a covenant, and let him know that if he needs to reveal a secret you promise to stay calm and take time to process. Only after you are calm and ready to talk reasonably and without anger, you will get together to talk about an appropriate course of action. Remind your child that he will always have your love, no matter what. If a child knows that he will be met with a calm parent, even if he is about to get in trouble, he is more likely to be honest and reveal the secret.
Also, when making this promise, let her know that some adults are very bad people. The only way these people can continue to be bad is if children and other people keep secrets. Make sure your child knows that if any secret has to do with an adult doing something to her, such as touching her in a private area, threatening her, etc. that you will never be upset with her, only the adult! As obvious as that seems, children rarely understand this. So make sure you let her know.
EXAMINE YOUR OWN BEHAVIOR
Finally, some of you have asked your children to keep a bad secret. Maybe there is a life-controlling habit you don’t want your spouse or other loved one to know you have returned to but, your child has watched as you struggle. (Do I need to list these? – smoking, overeating, having a relationship with the opposite gender that spouse does not know about, spending money in a way you agreed not to, etc.) If this is you, please be aware that by your example you are creating vulnerability in your child. Please, for your sake and especially for your child’s sake, confess this to your spouse and to your child and make it right. By doing so you are protecting your child and this real-life lesson will help him to learn that bad secrets should not be kept!
Parents, do not assume that your child already
understands the difference between good and bad secrets or that he feels safe
coming to you to reveal a secret. Instead, take the offensive and make sure he
knows! In today’s world, our children need to be safeguarded in every way possible.
Mark, thanks for sharing this really important topic with us. Now excuse me, I think I need to go talk to my kids!