August 16, 2011

We Don’t Keep Secrets – Teaching Kids to Tell


telling secrets

Physical and sexual abuse, especially of children, is steeped in silence. Children are often threatened not to tell. Sometimes they’re told it’s “our secret”. It’s not a secret, it’s a crime. And children should be taught that there is always a safe adult they can talk to if something just doesn’t seem right.

This has been my philosophy long before I had a child. I never liked the idea of secrets. Maybe it’s because I didn’t like the idea of getting in trouble if I told. It’s not easy being a kid and not being able to tell about things.

Teaching our kids about safety is very complex these days. There is a great deal of focus on “stranger danger”, at the expense of what I think are equally important. I have a very strong sense that no one gets to touch me without my permission. So when BabyGirl was about 18-months old I began teaching her the actual names of her body parts and also that she’s the boss of her body.

Another thing I started teaching BabyGirl when she was just a toddler was that WE DON’T KEEP SECRETS! Yes, that merits all caps! Early on, the message was there is nothing in this world that we shouldn’t be able to tell each other. If anyone ever tells you something is a secret and not to tell mom or dad then what they really mean is to hurry and tell your parents as soon as you see them. That is what likely was my saving grace in finding out what happened to her.

In our family surprises are OK. Surprises are meant to be told. And even if you tell them before they’re supposed to it really is OK. Especially for kids. Sure, something might not go as planned but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal.

Now that BabyGirl is in the tween years, it’s even more important that she understand this idea of Surprises, NOT Secrets! As kids start developing friendship and doing silly and foolish things, I want her to know that she can tell me anything and will never have to worry about what anyone else will do or say to her. It’s my job as her mother to protect her. If she needs to betray someone’s confidence to tell me something, then so be it. I’m the adult and I should be the one to determine if it’s worth keeping confidential, not a child.

It’s not an easy lesson to teach, because she’s often gotten in trouble for sharing things. Not because she’s shared, but because what happened needed intervention. And I’m always quick to tell her that I appreciate her telling me and that the consequence comes not from sharing with mommy but from whatever having happened. Other than the one incident, which, of course, she did not get in trouble for, she’s told me about being asked by an older kid to hide a friend’s book or that someone stole something and she can’t tell. I tried to make each of them a teaching moment.

Never punish for the disclosure! Punishment is for poor or inappropriate behavior. For the book hiding, she had to go back and get the book and give it to her friend and tell her she was sorry for hiding it. Then there was the discussion with the older kids that I had. Don’t ask younger kids to do your dirty work.

Ultimately, though, the goal of Surprises, NOT Secrets is to help my daughter understand that no matter what anyone says to her, does to her, or asks her to do or not do that she should never worry about telling me. Fun surprises may be made public before they were intended, but that’s a small price to pay for knowing that my child can come to me, her father or another trusted adult.

Please let me know your thought about  this idea of Surprise, Not Secrets

image credit: sixninepixels



thanks October 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm

thanks, this is helpful to me as a health teacher

Gillian May 25, 2013 at 2:30 am

How can I contact you with a private question regarding this topic of secrets and children? Thanks for this post… I’m in a position were I need some backup on exactly this topic.

Sara May 25, 2013 at 7:17 am

Gillian, if you would like to contact me directly you may do so by filling out the information here:

Thank you,

Nina September 19, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Can you think of, and possibly recommend, any children’s books on not keeping secrets from mommy & daddy? My son tends to internalize lessons, right now, when it is in a story, etc, and I need to teach him that he can always tell us anything and no matter what anyone tells him … There are never secrets from mommy & daddy.

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