Friday, June 3, 2016
Don't Tell This To Your Children
Your brothers drink a little too much at the family gathering and get in a brawl on the front lawn. You are late paying the electricity bill and your lights get shut off. You have a noisy argument with your spouse. You are too exhausted to make dinner for your kids and they go to bed hungry. You tell them, "Don't tell anyone about this."
You have a good reason for saying it. You don't want everyone knowing your family's business. After all, if your daughter tells her little friend Heather about the time you left her waiting in the car for just a few minutes while you ran into the grocery store, and Heather tells her mommy, the next thing you know, all the other moms at the school's Ice Cream Social are giving you the hairy eyeball. It isn't right to air your dirty laundry. You want privacy.
But... Here's the thing. When kids are little we talk to them about fun secrets and bad secrets. Fun secrets are things like, "Don't tell Daddy about the special present we got him for his birthday," or "We;re taking the kids on a surprise trip to Disney World." Bad secrets are secrets that someone asks you to keep when they are doing something wrong, something unsafe.
Your little family secrets... they're sort of a gray area. But when you tell your kids to keep that sort of secret, you teach them that they... and you... have something to be ashamed of. They learn that it is their responsibility to protect adults by keeping their secrets. They learn that nobody outside of the family is to be trusted. And think about this... if someone does hurt them, and tells them to keep it a secret, they will have already learned about keeping their mouths shut.
I've worked in schools for a long time. Yes, kids do tell us everything. We've heard it all. We generally don't judge... we take it all with a grain of salt, and with some amusement. We hear about how you were still in your pajamas when you dropped them off at school today, We hear about how you let them stay up until midnight on the Fourth of July. We understand.
Even if your kid tells us something questionable...like about his uncles' fistfight on the lawn after Thanksgiving dinner... we're pretty understanding. It is important that kids feel safe to talk to their teachers about something that might have scared or upset them. We can even let you know that something has worried your child more than you thought it would, so you can keep a close eye on them yourself. Sometimes, for whatever reason, kids will keep a secret from their parents. They may be afraid of getting in trouble, or of making you mad. If something is bothering your child, or someone is hurting or threatening them... if your child is in some sort of danger that you don't know about... then you want them to have responsible adults at school that they feel safe to talk to.
That said, if a child tells us something that points to his being in real danger, then we are legally, and morally, obligated to call child protective services. One example I experienced is when, years ago, I worked in a child care center. A three-year-old boy came to school one morning and told us, repeatedly, in details, that while he'd been lying in bed the night before his dad had punched him in the face and given him a bloody nose. We called social services right away. It turned out, sadly, that the story was true... the father had Bipolar Disorder and had gotten angry when the little boy had been crying at bed time, so he'd gone in and punched him. The child's shocked mother had kicked the father out of the house, so she was trying to take care of things, and child protective services was actually able to help her and the little boy leave an abusive situation.
Now, what if there is something going on at home that you really don't want other people knowing about? Lets say you have a teenager who has been having some serious problems... you found drugs in her room, or she got arrested for shoplifting. There has been a lot of yelling going on in your house... you and your spouse yelling at your daughter, and yelling at each other about how to handle her. You don't think this is the sort of thing you want your younger child, 7-year-old Timmy, to be sharing with all of his classmates. So you tell him, "Timmy, this is our family business. Do not share it with anyone." Timmy doesn't really understand what is going on, but all the yelling has been scaring him. Refer to Paragraph 5 of this blog entry: When you tell your kids to keep that sort of secret, you teach them that they... and you... have something to be ashamed of. They learn that it is their responsibility to protect adults by keeping their secrets. They learn that nobody outside of the family is to be trusted. And think about this... if someone does hurt them, and tells them to keep it a secret, they will have already learned about keeping their mouths shut.
Instead, you could even call your child's teacher and actually let them know what is going on... you don't have to talk about all of the details, but let the teacher know that your older daughter has been in some trouble and there has been a lot of tension and anger in the house. Then we... the people who spend 7 hours a day with Timmy at school... can keep an eye on him. If he seems a little withdrawn, or has trouble focusing, we'll know that he may need a little extra patience and TLC. If he doesn't turn in his homework because you just didn't get a chance to help him with it, we'll understand why. And if he does need to talk, we'll be there to listen and comfort him.
If there is something going on in your house that is putting your children in danger... for example you are dealing with a substance addiction that is leaving you unable to take care of your kids, or someone in your home has been hurting others in the home... then as a parent, it is your job to put a stop to it. Instead of telling your child, "Don't tell anyone about this," you need to do something to keep your child safe. I am probably preaching to the choir here, because I know my readers well and most of them wouldn't be in this particular situation, so this is mostly a vent. But still... it is not fair to ask children to keep a secret that will allow them to continue to be in danger.
Okay. Rant over. Goodnight.