Afterwards, I couldn’t get my daughter to tell me. I tried everything. There was a lot of crying. And I went from being a little worried about my daughter not telling me what it was that she was nagging at her friend to tell her parents about to being a LOT worried that anyone had this much power to stop my kid from telling me anything … anything at all. She’s 8. She has autism. This is terrifying.
I told the parents of the other child that my daughter was distressed about a secret and asked them to help out with the dilemma. They asked the other child about the secret. Apparently, the friend basically said, “There is no secret.” I was non-plussed. I had spent several minutes trying to drag it out of both of them, then even more time with my daughter. There was a secret all right. But I told my daughter, your friend says there is no secret, which means it isn’t a secret any more, which means you can tell me. Out it spilled, as stupidly trivial as anything could be. The friend wanted something. My daughter wanted her friend to tell her parents so they would buy it. The family finances are tight. And the friend said a lot of nasty things about her father’s unwillingness to spend money. That was it. The whole secret was basically a kid calling her dad names for not buying her toys. Boring as fuck. Also, the dad’s a good guy, doing everything he can for his family. Kind of mean to be calling him names.
I’m allergic to secrets. Part of why I am allergic to secrets is because I (and I wasn’t the only one) was sexually molested by a family member and obviously there were a lot of secrets involved. I got to wondering what the current consensus on kids and secrets is.
Here is the national Crime Prevention Council page on kids and secrets.
This one really stood out to me: “Make sure they know that no one has the right to ask them to keep a secret from their parents.”
Wanting to know the content of the secret doesn’t make me a bad mother.
The primary exception to the No Secrets rule is clear and common, and exactly the one I came up with when talking to my daughter after the dust settled.
“It's okay for children to keep surprise parties and presents secret because these secrets will make someone happy and won't be a secret forever.”
Surprises parties and presents okay, time limited secrets okay. Everything else, nope. I even went down a list of everyone that my daughter and I both know, and asked her in turn, if any of those people had ever asked her to keep a secret. Ever. Answer: none of them. We don’t do secrets — we don’t even do surprises. And if kids want candy or cookies, they get them. We don’t have limits that are broken and then the violation kept as a “secret” — I think that just causes all kinds of trouble.
Some websites have much more complicated explanations of secrets that are okay vs. ones that are not okay.
I can’t make head or tale of most of that. I have a bunch of policies about confidential information. If the story in question is entertaining, I’ll shave off all identifying information, change some details, and use it as cocktail party fodder. I’ve actually done this in front of the source of the story and had them think it was someone else — they came by and said, OMG, that’s so much like what happened to me! I can’t believe you know two people that happened to! And I’m like, weird, huh? Secret kept. Stories which are too boring to tell at a party are not hard to keep confidential — I barely remember them. A long time ago, I had friends who were really awful people, and so sometimes I’d find out that someone was sleeping with someone else who they were not supposed to be with. And yes, I am the person who will go tell the partner of the person who wasn’t supposed to be doing that. I eventually figured out not to hang out with people who did that kind of shit and thus had to keep that kind of secret.
There are some people who use secrets as a bridge to more complicated sets of rules that are pretty valuable:
Years ago, a friend of mine was dating someone who used to be a friend of mine, but who I had gotten really suspicious of. She was being treated for depression. She was being pressured to do things she really didn’t want to do. I decided that enough was enough, and I contacted a bunch of people who had had some kind of relationship that went bad with the person she was dating. We staged a rolling intervention. Basically, I got everyone to tell her all their stories about What Went Wrong With Him. And that was the end of that. Relationship ended. Cats were rescued. New relationship started. Happily Ever After (look, life is complicated, and nothing is perfect, but they still seem quite happy in their now family of 4). And she will reliably rant about the dangers of a Culture of Silence since that event. More power to her.
She’s right. I’m not opposed to being tactful and diplomatic when we complain about other people doing annoying things. Tact and etiquette are great things. Keeping secrets, however, is NOT a great thing. Just fucking gossip publicly. It’s so much less scary.