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'Don't Tell Dad' a Bad Plan

Last week I was standing in line at the pharmacy and there was a mother with a small child about four years old standing in front of me.  As I waited I noticed the mother bend down and say to the child “Don’t tell Daddy we stopped at the drug store.”  The child stood very still, looking intently into his mother’s eyes.  Time stopped for about 6 seconds and I could see the confusion building in his gaze.  Finally he asked “Why?”  Mom was a bit impatient. “Because I told you not to.”  This typical exchange happens all the time.  I took note of it, and in fact have thought of it many times since it occurred because of that confusion I saw welling in the eyes of the little boy. 

It is often difficult for adults to understand that children do not perceive the world in the same way as a grown up does even though the child has begun to talk and have conversation.  A child’s cognitive abilities are not fully developed and they develop gradually over time. Children may appear to be quite articulate but how they think and what they can truly understand depends on their age, their experiences and their individual abilities.  The incident in the pharmacy is a case in point.  Two key pieces of information will help the parent and the child manage this situation in a better way.  First, children are inherently honest and the thought of not telling a significant adult the truth causes internal conflict and discomfort.  The concept of withholding information may not be fully understood but the relationship with the other parent is paramount and the child can sense an impending breach, a possible conflict.  A secret can be intolerable.  Parents would be wise to avoid any situation that involves a child in a secret.  Even the benign “surprise” birthday party is not advisable.  The child will be obsessed with “when can I tell?” because secrets don’t rest well in the straightforward mind of a child.

Secondly, children are continuously learning and absorbing new information about the world.  It is important to support their experiences with explanations so that they will know it when it happens again.  If mom felt the need not to tell her partner about the visit to the store she needed to spend the time talking with her son and carefully explaining why she did not want Dad to know.  If the adult cannot provide an honest reasonable explanation then do not put the secret on the child. 

In my view the downside of secrecy far out weighs any possible up side.  There is too fine a line between what the child can manage and what will cause potential damage.  For years I have been talking with people whose secrets have all but destroyed their lives.  What has been surprising for me is the mundane quality of some of their secrets but the profound effect they have had on the individual.

Deborah Joyce is the Executive Director of District 69 Family Resource Association serving children, youth and families in Oceanside. Contact her at 250 752 6766.