How (and When) to Teach Kids to Keep Secret

A secret between a parent and a young child can be a lot of fun. But asking a young child to keep a secret from the other parent is a potential minefield.

by Andy Kryza
Originally Published: 

For a parent, sharing a secret with a young child can be a fun chance to bond. But asking a young child to keep a secret from another parent is a potential minefield that can easily result in eroded trust and put an emotional burden on a confused kid. In the worst case scenario, secrets make kids feel guilty. In the best case scenario, secrets make a kid feel special. But how to make sure that a secret does the former and not the latter? It’s pretty simple if you know how to self-censor.

The big two questions parents need to ask before they tell a kid to keep a secret: Is it a fun secret? Is it no big deal if the kid breaks his or her silence? If the answer to both is “yes,” you’re likely in the clear and it’s just a matter of approach.

“Parents can try to get kids under age seven or so to keep secrets about parties and presents, but do not expect the child will keep it quiet and do not get mad at them if they don’t keep it quiet,” says Dr. Ann Lagges, a pediatric psychologist with Riley Children’s Health. “Any talk of ‘secrets’ for little kids should only be about fun things and framed as ‘surprises.’ Young kids can also be exposed to the idea that sometimes, in games, we don’t share all of the information we have and that this is okay.”

Fun secrets are generally intended to eventually be revealed. Pleading with kids not to tell mommy while planning a surprise party presents precisely zero problems. Why would it? In that case, dad is teaching his kids empathy, kindness, and discretion. It’s all good stuff. And there’s even some teamwork thrown in.”For fun things usually the only burden is that it is so hard not to tell because it is so exciting,” says Lagges. “Kids like to share fun things with their parents. The task here is, in a way, delaying gratification. The child wants to see the happy response from the other parent, and they have a hard time waiting.”

But what happens if, while setting up, daddy breaks a vase or the rules. Well, that’s where it gets complicated because sweeping the bad stuff under the rug leverages the trust created towards a bad end, undermining family trust.

When to Ask a Kid to Keep a Secret from Another Parent

  • Only as a kid to keep a secret in circumstances where it involves a surprise or present.
  • Kids can occasionally be asked to keep secrets in games where information needs to be withheld
  • If the information divulged will not cause one or both parents to feel angry or betrayed.
  • In circumstances where a child won’t feel undue stress from a fun secret.

A “bad” secret can sit heavily on a kid. If one parent asks a child not to tell the other parent about something, it can begin a web of mistrust. The words “don’t tell” often proceed a request for betrayal, teaching duplicity or, more dangerously, silence.

“For more serious things, it really isn’t appropriate for parents to ask kids of any age to keep a secret from the other parent in the vast majority of circumstances. Kids will feel they are being put in the middle of something that they should not be in the middle of and will feel conflict if they are trying to be loyal to both parents,” says Lagges. “For example, if a parent shares with a child that they are still smoking cigarettes when they’ve told the other parent that they’ve stopped, and then that other parent asks, ‘Do you think your mom/dad is still smoking?’ The poor kid isn’t going to know what to do.”

Modeling to a kid that they should hide certain behavior from another parent to risk getting in trouble can set a bad example for the future, teaching a child that it’s not technically lying if somebody simply doesn’t disclose the truth to begin with. And while keeping a secret and lying outright are different behaviors, a parent whose example puts secrets and lies in similar strata can be showing a child that it’s ok to be only partially honest about important things.

“If a parent really does not want to risk the other parent hearing about it, they probably should not tell the child at all, and it can just be a surprise for them too,” says Lagges. “I doubt the child would feel betrayed by not knowing. Kids usually like surprises about good things.”

Put a different way, kids are always witnesses and never accomplices. If you’re going to do something bad, make sure they’re not around.

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