Secrets can be heavy, and are something a child learns to keep.
When I was six, I was playing restaurant with a friend. We were seated at the play table and decided we need to create a menu to make the game more fun. My friend asked, “what should we put on the menu?” I was feeling gutsy, so instead of saying what I normally would have said–pizza, fries, pie–I decided to try out a new word I’d heard a neighborhood teen say–a word that sounded bad, but I wasn’t sure. I decided my friend would be a safe place to try it out. I said, “why don’t we put f***ing cake on the menu.” My friend’s face went pale. I giggled nervously, thinking I was somehow cool for having the nerve to try it out. My friend said, “you just said a bad word. I’m going to go tell your mom.” Oh no, I thought…I hadn’t thought about my mom finding out as a possibility. I panicked and begged my friend not to tell. They did tell, and I got into big trouble. My punishment was soap in the mouth — needless to say I didn’t say another bad word out loud for a long time, but I picked up another habit…learning how to keep a secret. Instead of asking my parents or a trusted adult what something I didn’t understand, or was confused by, meant I kept it to myself, trying to figure out the meaning on my own, or relying on my peers or older kids in the neighborhood. It was a recipe for a lot of misinformation and even more confusion about how the world worked.
As an adult, I learned keeping secrets can become an overwhelming burden; weighing you down lot a ton of bricks. It can hinder your ability to enjoy your life controlling your thoughts and actions. Speaking your truth–whether it’s ignorance about how something works, or something you did, or something you didn’t do but should have, etc.–can set you free, or certainly start to lift you from the weight of the burden.
My son recently asked if he could talk to me in private. He asks me to do this occasionally, and I always reassure him that I will listen to what he has to say, and he doesn’t need to worry about being embarrassed or ashamed about whatever he wants to talk to me about. He shared that he had seen a picture that made him feel excited, nervous and sick. Despite having the computer in an open space in our home, with parental control filters on, he came across a picture that was too grown up for him to see (the pic was of a woman scantily clad in a provocative pose–it was an ad next to a YouTube video (the YouTube video was appropriate for kids, the ad clearly was not)). My heart dropped a bit when he told me this, partly because I recognized he was losing some of his innocence, and partly because I was hopeful we wouldn’t cross this bridge with him until he was much older. The upside of learning this information was that my son had the courage to tell me, and trusted me to help him deal with it.
While I would love to take away screen time forever and protect my son from being exposed to inappropriate matter, it isn’t realistic, and wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, my husband and I needed to come up with a plan to help our son. I sat down and talked with him about what he saw (my husband had a separate conversation with him as well), and we came up with a plan for what to do when you come across inappropriate pictures. Like many parental firsts, I felt like we were treading new ground. I’d never had a conversation like this with my parents, and can only hope we’re handling this in a way that will truly help him.
After sharing his secret, my son’s demeanor changed: where he had been moody and short tempered, he became happy and couldn’t get the smile off his face. We were out the next day enjoying ourselves, and he came over to me and said, “Mom, I don’t have any more secrets!” I could see the shear joy on his face at this realization. I asked him how not having any secrets felt. He thought for a moment and said, “Pretty good.” Pretty good indeed, I thought.
Keeping a secret is hard. Helping your child navigate growing up is hard. Having open conversations that don’t allow secrets to live is freeing, and it feels great.
How are you helping your child navigate challenging issues?