What to teach children about keeping secrets

secretsWe want our children to be able to keep secrets, to know there are things that are personal.  At the same time there are some things that they may be asked to keep as a secret that they need and we want them to be open with us about.  Our goal at all ages is for them to feel comfortable in telling us anything, especially things that do not feel good to them.  How we define these can be confusing to youngsters, depending on their age and maturity level.

When children are young – having a special secret can be a lot of fun, a bit mysterious and a special bond.  We want them to understand that if we are having a ‘surprise’ birthday party for daddy, that it is only a surprise if we can keep it a secret.  Tying the character skill of loyalty to this kind of secret is a simple way of teaching the importance of loyalty.  However if one of their friends is getting picked on in school, this is not a secret we want them to keep.   Or if their sibling is about to do something that is dangerous – we want them to tell us about it.  So even learning the difference between telling on someone to get them in trouble or reporting something to keep them safe is very different.

Here are the guides for knowing when to keep a secret and when we must tell a trusted adult, especially the parents.  Ask yourself 4 questions:

  1. Is it fair?  (does it feel like the right thing to do?)
  2. Is it safe?  (will someone be or get hurt if I don’t tell?)
  3. Will I be proud of the choice I make? (if I don’t tell, will I feel proud?)
  4. Am I trying to get help or get someone in trouble? (the difference between tattling and reporting)

These questions can be used no matter the age of the child, we can even ask our adult selves these questions when we are trying to determine if we should tell something to another person. Imagine your teen son or daughter learned that their friend was going to run away from home.  Wouldn’t you be proud of them if they came to you and told you?  They will if they understand that running away would not be safe and they are reporting it to you to help their friend.  That is loyalty.
In teaching them about the concept of loyalty, start by using examples that they can understand, where they need to make a choice about telling or not telling a secret.  Encourage them to use the four questions to make a decision about telling – and be loyal to their friends and family.