Ramona had a friend over last week and they were hanging out on the big bed listening to Spotify (seven year olds these days!) when I overheard her friend say “Let’s tell each other our secrets!” With a swell of pride I heard Ramona say “Yes! Let’s tell each other, and then we can tell our mums.” Her friend said “Erm, no, it’s a SECRET.” Ramona carried on “Yeah, I know, but with secrets you get to tell you mum, and it’s still a secret.” Her friend said “Oh, okay!” And the whispering began.
For a few years now we have been a “no secrets” family. This means we talk about “surprises” rather than “secrets.” We correct each other “Do you mean “surprise” instead of secret?” and we talk about the difference “Secrets always stay hidden but surprises are always meant to be revealed.”
The problem with secrets
Over the last few years I’ve been working for a small sexual abuse prevention charity. It’s been hugely enlightening for me and has impacted lots of areas of my parenting. One of the patterns that comes up in the stories of victims of childhood sexual abuse is the presence of the word “secret” – it’s too common to overlook. Perpetrators use this language often to create a dynamic where children feel unable to tell someone what is happening to them. If you think about it, there is a cultural pride in being able to keep secrets, to not snitch, to not break alliance and loyalty. People use this culture to keep kids in unsafe situations.
We have tried to make sure that the word “secret’ raises alarm bells in our children’s minds. That it stirs up in them questions about who is asking them to keep a secret, that it prompts them to come and check in with us, their safe people.
An evolving “no secrets” policy
For a few years it was easy to have a “no secrets’ policy. Our children were young, and if a friend or family member or random stranger in the street even said the word “secret” our children would gleefully yell “We don’t have secrets! We have surprises! There’s an important difference!”
But as Ramona has grown older it’s become trickier. There’s almost a childhood rite in having secrets with friends. The way we bridged this was by coming up with a solution together – that she would tell me her secrets. So that they were never completely hidden. Since coming up with this, there’s been around 3 times that she has told me things she was asked to keep secret. One of the times was pretty intense, a situation that was unsafe, and I am SO, SO glad she knew that it was wrong to be asked to keep this a secret and that she came straight to me.
An other version of “No Secrets”
And, because life isn’t ever straightforward and simple, I wanted to tell you about the time she didn’t want to tell me a secret! I’d love to be able to say “yes, we are a no secrets family and it works perfectly!” but life’s messy, isn’t it?
A couple of months ago Ramona was told a secret by a friend her age. She REALLY doesn’t want to tell me that secret. We talked about how we don’t have secrets, about how it’s still a secret if mum knows. All of that. And still, she didn’t want to tell me.
I sat with it for a while. And I began to feel that my job as her parent, as her guide and safe person, wasn’t to make her tell me her secrets. In fact, I could NEVER make her tell me something that she didn’t want to. Just as you can’t make a child sleep. They own their own bodies and minds, it is their right to do with them what they will. I didn’t want her to feel forced to tell me her secret, as, in a way, that goes against the culture of consent we are trying to develop here in our corner of the universe!
So, instead, I explained clearly the reasons we ask her to share her secrets with me; in order to keep her safe; because people sometimes use secrets to make others unsafe; to make them do things they don’t want to do. I explained that if anyone tells her anything, speaks to her in any way or does something to her that makes her feel unsafe it will really help if she tells me about it.
Once we had this talk Ramona thought a lot about it. She thought alot about the nature of her secret and she came back to me and said “This is Ellie’s secret, but it’s only a little thing. It’s something we want to share between us. It’s not to do with anyone making her do things. I feel totally comfortable. This secret isn’t going to make either of us unsafe.”
While I would rather she was able to just stick to our “no secrets” policy, I think it’s pretty incredible that she has the tools to think about the nature of the secret and to assess her and her friend’s safety.
I feel like by not pushing the “no secrets” thing on to her, beyond what she feels able to engage with, leads to MORE trust and respect between us, makes it more likely that if something unsafe was to be put on her, she would come to me with it.
She’s able to engage with the whole “secrets are unsafe” dynamic whilst holding on to one that she really wants to keep.
We have a big problem with child sexual abuse here in NZ – the statistics tell us that one in three girls will be abused by the age of 16. It’s an awful figure, far worse than most other developed countries. But what that figure does is remind us, and it should remind parents in every country no matter what the stats are like, that sexual abuse isn’t something that happens out there, to other people. It crosses all boundaries, can happen to anyone.
We need a HUGE, widespread societal change, we need perpetrators to STOP and we need rape culture to END. But there are small things we can do in our own homes to shift the likelihood that our own children will be victims. Talking about secrets, using the anatomical terms for body parts and nurturing your child’s sense of body autonomy are some of them.
I invite you to consider being a “no secrets” family too.
Much love and stay radical! x x