“Don’t Tell Daddy”–should you keep your child’s secrets? 5 rules to follow

It’s a dilemma all parents–married or divorced–eventually face. Your child is upset and wants to confide in you (great!), but in you alone (maybe not so great?). Parents often assume that if a child is requesting secrecy, he or she must have done something they don’t want the more hard-assed parent to discover. It’s true that “Don’t Tell Dad” conversations often end up being about the child’s wrongdoing, like getting a time-out at school, failing an algebra test or being busted by the dorm RA for smoking weed. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes kids are afraid to squeal on another child or fear parental hurt or disappointment, rather than the adult’s anger or announcement of consequences..

I talked this “tell or don’t tell?” dilemma over with New Jersey parenting coach Fern Weis, who acknowledged there can be some tough calls, especially in the teen years. “You want them to open up to you. But what if that’s at the expense of the trust you share with your partner? If we agree to keep a secret, what does that teach our kids about the importance of telling the truth?” On the other hand, she points out, we don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with our kids and sometimes we have to consider the specific circumstances.

I’m trying to develop some ground rules for when “not telling” is okay. It’s an easy call to not divulge the child’s secret if the other parent is abusive. In such cases, your primary responsibility is to protect. But kids can also be manipulative–trying to get an ironclad promise out of the “easier” parent before confessing a misdeed. As Weis points out, “your credibility is really at stake.”

So here are the five pointers I’ve come up with so far. Let me know what you think of them–and what advice you have to add.

Don’t agree ahead of time. The classic, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell Dad [or Mom]?” should be met with, “I can’t promise before I know what it is.” This demand for secrecy is a sign of how worried the child is–and how anxious to have you involved. That means that he or she will probably tell you what’s up anyway, even without your agreeing to keep your lips sealed.

Be supportive. Don’t express anger at your child for asking you to keep a secret. If your answer is “no,” be gentle about it. Say something like, “I can’t promise not to tell Mom. But my number one goal is to help you. I’m going to love you no matter what you tell me,  and I really want what’s best for you.”

Ask why it’s a secret. Sometimes, you can get a child to spill just by asking questions about the need for secrecy. Try open-ended queries like, “What do you think Dad would say if you told him?” or “How do you think Mom will react?”.

Don’t make a promise you aren’t going to keep. Don’t say you’ll stay silent if you plan to blab to your partner. The bottom line is that you want your child to consider you trustworthy.

Encourage your child to talk to the other parent. Once your daughter confesses that she didn’t follow through on her promise to button the jacket pocket that held the $5 her Dad gave her and thus lost the money on her class trip, urge her to tell him directly rather than use you as a go-between. Unless you know her father won’t react appropriately, teach her to deliver her own bad news. Sometimes, when kids do something wrong they feel like such “evil-doers” that they exaggerate in their minds how horribly their parent will react. Coming clean allows kids to learn childhood’s happiest lesson: that they can be bad, wrong and imperfect–and still be worthy of their parents’ love.

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