“The only way for you to keep a secret is not to hear it” Fred Mertz snapped to his wife Ethel. In “I Love Lucy,” the plot relies upon Ethel blabbing about Lucy’s harebrained ideas. When the secret is revealed, laughs abound. And, because it’s Hollywood, everyone lived happily ever after.

In real life, secrets have a place, too. From birthday presents to surprise visits from a loved one, secrets add a heightened thrill to a happy event. With those “good” secrets, the secret is eventually revealed when the birthday or guest arrive.

Not all secrets lead to happy events. In fact, a child of any age who is holding a secret may be tormented with the desire to tell, but the fear of the outcome of telling is greater. Children may fear getting someone in trouble, jeopardizing a friendship or retaliation to himself or his family. A child may also have had a threat made against him or her to pressure into keeping the secret.

The National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) established guidelines to help parents explain to their children how to tell a “good” secret (one that’s okay to keep, a safe secret) from a “bad” secret (one that is not okay to keep, an unsafe secret):

The rule is:

• If a secret can't hurt someone or something, keep it.

• If a secret can hurt someone or something, tell an adult.

• If you're not sure, tell. 

The NCPC urges parents to take the time to listen carefully to their child’s fears about people or places that make them uncomfortable. In sexual abuse cases, for example, perpetrators often use secrets to lure and groom children. Keep the line of conversation open, and be supportive so that your child knows he or she won’t be in trouble for revealing the secret.

As your child grows up and with grown-up help, he or she will come to understand the difference between privacy and confidentiality and secrets. When little sister wets her pants at the grocery store, it’s a secret, but not one that needs to be shared. Sometimes when a family member is battling an illness, there’s a desire to keep it private. Keep in mind that a child may need to talk with someone about it to help with coping. You can help your child by giving him or her the opportunity to talk with someone who can help work through the worries and fears.

The NCPC’s rule shouldn’t be lost on teens and adults. As adults, we tend to think that if we know a “secret” about a classmate or colleague, it’s none of our business. We can talk away our concerns, thinking, “it’s a good family” or “that person would never do that.” Problems like abuse, violence and substance use transcend every economic, geographic, religious and social class. Especially with the widespread heroin problem, telling when someone is using can save a life. A teacher, guidance counselor, human resource manager or family member are individuals who can try to intervene and get help when classmates or fellow employees are concerned for someone’s well-being.

Secrets create the opportunity for “teachable moments.” Ongoing dialogue will help your child understand respecting privacy, as well as having the confidence to speak up when something makes him or her uncomfortable or when an acquaintance could be in trouble. When we model this behavior – respecting privacy and speaking up when necessary – our children learn by watching. 

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at pam@dunebrook.org.

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