Why we are a “no secrets” family

23 January, 2018

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 importance of having "surprises" and not "secrets"

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

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  • JC 23 January, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    This is a wonderful approach! We are also a no secrets family, in that my kids feel safe telling me everything with the understanding that I am their safe place. Whether it is something they did wrong, something someone did or said to them, or a funny little thought they have we have always been open and I make sure I help the, think through it. If needed I will step in but am trying to make it so that they have the critical thinking skills to handle situations on their own while also knowing I will always been a kind listening ear to help them when needed. As a child I did not have this and can see so many situations that could have been avoided had I had a trusted adult on my side.

  • Bettina Rae 24 January, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. It’s something I’ve wanted to broach with my kids but haven’t wanted to give them fears they don’t need at their age (5 and 2). My husband is a policeman so unfortunately I know too well how often this happens and how it’s often by those they know. Now I know how to get around it by talking about secrets, so thank you.

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  • Mischiefsmum 25 January, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Our little girl has just turned six and we’ve always been a no secrets family. Surprises for sure coz they’re fun and exciting. We haven’t yet got to the stage of friends wanting to share secrets but I’m sure it will come. Still we are fortunate enough that in our HE community most families share a similar stance. I hope our little one will be as reasoned and rational as Ramona when she’s confronted with a similar situation.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Anna 26 January, 2018 at 5:12 am

    Love every word of this. Thank you so much for sharing, Lucy. Just last week I was reading about all the victims on the US gymnastics team and being brought to tears by the horror of what they had to endure, the secrets they had to bear, and the bravery they showed in bringing those secrets to light. Teaching children about the nature of secrets is so important!! (I also love the little anecdote about a time when the no secrets approach had to be modified a bit. Romona’s words are so grounded and self assured – I am so inspired!)

  • Jackie Parker 26 January, 2018 at 8:47 am

    I love this. Nothing under cover. Your kids will be safe. Props for yurt-living, too!

  • Alice 7 February, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    What a great post, I’m so pleased I found it. We’re at this stage with our 7 year old daughter and all the changing girly friendship dynamics at school. I’m going to sit with her tonight and change the secrets language to surprises – it makes much better, SAFER sense x

  • Ushmana Rai 8 February, 2018 at 3:39 am

    This is the most well-thought parenting blog I have read today. Thank you for your speculations and I do believe a” no secrets” family pact must be made for the safety of the child themselves rather than seeing it as a way of invading privacy.
    Loved your thoughts and perspectives, all the love!