Should your children keep secrets from you?
Keeping confidences is key to relationships and is a skill that has to be learned
Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin: ‘We live in a world where secrets seem dangerous.’ Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan
Adult supervision casts a long shadow over children now – to and from school, in the playground, in sport and at other leisure activities. Parents want to know everything that’s going on in their children’s lives.
“With the big stuff they probably should,” says Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin.
But between parents’ desire for transparency and constant chaperoning it’s difficult for children to have secrets any more. Nor should they, it could be argued, when it’s well known that demanding secrecy is the modus operandi of predators.
Horror stories such as the one that bereaved mother Lorin LaFave has been recounting in the media recently about her 14-year-old son Breck being groomed at home in Surrey by an online gamer before being lured to his death, would seem to justify total paranoia.
“We live in a world where secrets seem dangerous,” agrees Noctor. “Sometimes they hold a threat but in most cases they don’t.”
Giving children the space to hold on to harmless secrets, the confidence to share risky ones with adults and the ability to tell the difference between the two is quite a challenge.
Let’s not forget that secrecy plays a part in developing a sense of self and forming friendships.
Keeping confidences is key to maintaining all sorts of relationships in life and a skill that has to be learned. Nobody likes a tell-tale in the playground or a gossip in the office.
At a time when what we share and what we keep to ourselves has become a lot more blurred, teaching children what is okay to share and what is not has become even more important, stresses Noctor, author of
Cop On, a parental guide to fostering resilience in a child. However, children don’t get the chance to develop the skill of selection of what is private and what is public in their own lives if they are being continuously watched.
“As they get older, their private life will become bigger and more complex,” he adds. “What they want to share with you will become less and that is totally developmentally normal.”
With younger children, safety must always come before privacy, says clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty. In those early years it’s about laying the foundations for them to know what is a “good” secret and what is a “bad” secret and you always being there to help them test that out.”
As a mother, she says, she was never one who wanted to know the ins and outs of who was friends with who in class and who said what to whom, “because I knew that the next week it would be completely different. I never got involved with tiffs.”
Children of primary-school age need the room to have secrets, she agrees. “This is the laboratory for them going into teenage years, when it’s a free-for-all and you are trying to establish all these boundaries in a non-threatening way.
“You are trying to teach your child that there are secrets and that if somebody tells you something in confidence, you don’t pass it on. But then they have to learn to weigh up whether that’s a good secret or a bad secret – the difference between gossip and something worrying.”
Sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argues for children to be allowed a little secrecy, in an essay published recently in the digital magazine Aeon.
She acknowledges how transparency in business and government is the new mantra, backed by a popular culture leaning towards revelation and openness.
“In this context of shifting attitudes towards secrets, ordinary, everyday secrecy is now a fraught terrain for children: do secrets help or hurt them? Enable them to grow, or hinder them?”
Jenkins believes that, in controlled doses, secrets remain necessary for a child’s development.
Secrecy “contributes to the formation of our inner awareness and autonomy; it creates a space for the imagination; and, as well as being a weapon of exclusion, it is an essential tool of friendship”, she points out.
Children “need room to experiment with secret-keeping, without being weighed down by secrets too large or too grave to bear”, she suggests.
Secrets that children keep from the significant adults in their lives are, of course, a staple of junior fiction. And Jenkins opens her piece by recalling how, as a child, she loved the “enchanting story” at the heart of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden, published in 1911
. “I loved the idea of having a secret place that I could share with one special friend.”
Holly Webb, contemporary English author of children’s fiction, loved that same story so much that her latest book, Return to the Secret Garden, is a follow-up.
“I did want to involve the original characters but I didn’t want to write a direct sequel,” she says from her home in Reading.
Her story is set during the second World War and a group of children have been evacuated to Misselthwaite Hall. There the protagonist, Emmie, starts discovering the secrets of the house, including a diary written by a girl named Mary and a very secret garden.
“There’s something incredibly special about having a place that’s just for you that nobody knows about and nobody knows where you are when you have gone to it – it’s very powerful,” she says.
But as a mother of three boys – aged 12 and nine-year-old twins – she is acutely aware that for today’s children that sort of scenario is unthinkable. Or, “if they are finding a place that feels secret away from adults, quite often it is online, which is quite scary.”
As a writer, Webb finds it is very useful to set books in the past “because you can get rid of the parents”. It’s a plot device that is rarely credible in a modern-day, family- focused story.
You have to give the main characters a certain amount of autonomy to create a sense of adventure and that is very hard, she says.
“Mobile phones have made it easier, in that with a nine- or 10-year-old child you can reasonably say: ‘You can take the dog out for a walk on your own but you have got to take mummy’s phone so I can contact you.’ It has to be very carefully framed.”
Constant adult supervision is “quite stifling” says Webb, who believes children need to have their own little world. If secrecy is not tolerated in the real world, she likes to think they can find a safe space in fiction.
“You can retreat into something that someone else has created but, because you read it, it has become yours – a powerful way to preserve your own sense of self.”
Does she know everything that goes on in her children’s lives? “No, not at all,” she says emphatically.
“I get a certain amount. You do get told what’s happened at school and then you have a child’s friend over who says something and you say: ‘Gosh, I never knew anything about that.’ But that’s quite good: I don’t necessarily want to know everything.
“You have to feel that if something was wrong they would tell you. That is about building up a sense of trust – if they feel you are being too controlling, they are less likely to tell you,” adds Webb, who will be speaking at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, in March.
Families operate their own code of silence, with children implicitly or explicitly taught that it’s not always appropriate to talk about everything they hear or see at home to all and sundry.
Staying mute on what their parents really think of the neighbours is hardly a bother, but secrecy about more serious issues such as illness can be a burden.
When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, for instance, the advice is always to be as open as possible in an age-appropriate way with children because they will sense something is wrong and may imagine the worst.
But if, for whatever reason, you don’t want news of the illness to be shared for the time being, is it fair to ask them to keep it secret?
“If parents do not wish their children to talk about the cancer outside the immediate family, then it is important for children to be told who within the family, including their parents, they can discuss any concerns with so they do not feel isolated,” says Deirdre Grant, chief executive of the Arc Cancer Support Centres. Arc runs the Climb programme for children aged five to 11, which aims to normalise conversations about cancer for children.
As for the more light-hearted “don’t tell your mother” or the “don’t tell your father” moments that arise in most homes, children aren’t stupid – they know they won’t be going to the chipper or staying up late again if they blab. Another life lesson learned.