Should Little Girls Have Secrets?

Molly and I stopped for pizza after an afternoon of consignment store shopping. Camp is ending this week, and I mentioned that her counselor had said there would be a party on the last day for all the parents. “I know,” she said. “Guess what puppets we have.”

“Kermit?” That’s my best and only guess as far as puppets go. Ever. I wanted to get past the guessing part of the conversation.

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

“Oh, well that’s okay,” I responded. No more guessing; that’s cool. And then I thought about it. “Well, you know, Molly, I don’t like secrets. You’re four and secrets are not okay.” In general, this rule works. When she and her friends are whispering about jumping off the bed “anyway” or emptying all the cereal boxes on the kitchen floor, the “no secrets” rule makes sense to both of us.

“But mommy, the teacher said we can’t tell you!”

“Right, but adults shouldn’t have secrets with children. I don’t like that. I know it’s your teacher…”

MOMMY! I can’t tell you! You have to wait and see!” She whined, impatient and not interested in my awkward attempt to explain why her wonderful, fun, and loving camp counselors should not ask her to not tell me about the ice cream and puppet show they are planning.

“Alright. I understand that.” I cut her pizza into smaller pieces so she could eat with her fork. There were other diners sitting close enough to hear our conversation about secret puppets. Am I crazy? Going too far–too obsessed with horrible stories on the news, on the Internet? Watching too many morbid television dramas? Should I get out more?

Probably. I know there is a popular parenting movement called “Free range parenting” that encourages children to be more self-sufficient and parents to be less overprotective in order to help build self-esteem. I know because I’ve read about it on the Internet. And it seems lovely and old-fashioned and reasonable. If you live in an old-fashioned-y town where people are lovely and reasonable. Those parents would confirm I am paranoid. And oh-my-God, am I making my child neurotic and freaked out about end-of-camp parties? Should I worry about that?

Last summer I published an interview I had done with an amazing mother and educator named Erin Runnion, founder of The Joyful Child Foundation in Memory of Samantha Runnion. During our conversation, I learned more than I could have imagined about empowering parents and children and communities–to prevent all the things I don’t want to think about.

And that’s all I could think about as Molly insisted she couldn’t break that confidence with her counselor about a lunch-time celebration. She was getting upset and clearly angry with me for not getting it.

“But Molly, the thing is that…” Sometimes adults are horrible monsters that you cannot trust or be alone with or even smile at. Sometimes grown ups might want to hurt you. Even the grown ups you know and like. But I know your counselors and I’m not really worried. I know they’re normal and nice and don’t want to hurt you. But one day that may not be the case so you should just not have secrets. Just in case. But that’s not now. Now it’s fine.

“…I want you to tell me if someone asks you to keep a secret. Even if that person is an adult. Like your teacher.” Unless it’s about a party. Or puppets. “I know you want to surprise me. And I can’t wait. Just…in general…” Like every other time but this one.

“What does ‘in gerenal’ mean?” She asked, wiping pizza grease away with her hand.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I answered. “Sometimes a surprise is fine–and…but…” I wished I hadn’t brought this up because now I was stuck in my own confusion. “You can’t keep secrets from mommy. Can I have a bite of that?” Pizza places should really serve alcohol, by the way.

What do you think about little children having secrets, even the most innocent ones? How do you explain to your children the difference between a fun surprise and an inappropriate secret with an adult? Should pizza restaurants serve wine to moms in awkward conversations?

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9 Responses to Should Little Girls Have Secrets?

  1. emily says:

    Wow – powerful and so true. I have had those exact thoughts during conversations with Alison.

  2. Oh this is an important one, girl! And tricky and uncomfortable, for sure!

    My gut says you’re right on, though – you opened the conversation a tiny bit now, and can revisit it a bit at a time later on, letting her know more and more as she gets bigger?


    {Fabulous topic, you. Also? Pizza – yum! :)}

  3. Aleta says:

    I haven’t thought of this…. how to explain to a young child when it’s ok to keep a secret and when it isn’t. Maybe if you give a very short, specific list? Example: Ok to keep a secret only if it’s about a surprise birthday party or a surprise gift. Otherwise if someone asks the child to keep a secret, the child has to report it to the parent.

  4. This is such a tough one. My kids have secrets from school – they make us little Mother’s Day presents and have a secret song they sing to surprise us at assembly. And now my older two girls share things with each other but not with me. For now I’m okay with it and hope I’ve done what I could to teach them right, wrong and what’s really a safe secret. If there is one. Oh gah now I need wine.

    • I know… I know. I am probably making it more complicated than I need to. It seemed like a moment where I should “teach” her something. And I really could have used a lesson myself first! argh.

  5. We just had this same type of situation occur a few weeks back. The girls were telling me about “secret dance parties” they were having at NY Kids Club during the Afternoon Club. The use of that word put me on edge, and I’m sure I overreacted. I bombarded them with questions and said pretty much what you did: That other adults should not ask you to keep secrets, especially from your parents; they shouldn’t have secrets with you. They were a little confused, and as it turns out the whole thing was entirely innocent. But hearing them say they had secrets with other adults raised my heart rate. How could it not?

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