How to encourage children to talk freely to parents, and not keep secrets

eyobkunu asks: How do we encourage kids to talk freely to their parents, and not keep secrets?

Thanks for asking this, eyobkunu.  It’s a fascinating question.


I’ve said on here before that dogs never lie, but you bring up a great point, that dogs also never keep secrets.  So I’ve had to really struggle to understand exactly what secrets are, and why people keep them.


The whole point behind secrets is that most people are very social, and love to tell most things in their lives to most of the people they know.  It really makes people feel good.  When I meet other dogs, I interact with them by sniffing them, playing with them, maybe some wrestling, maybe some barking, lots of chasing.  But when people meet, they usually, except for a quick handshake or embrace, talk.  That’s how they interact, show toughness, express love, entertain each other, etc.  Kind of a profound thing, when you think about it, isn’t it!


And when it comes to kids, wow, once they learn to talk, there is nothing they love more than yak yak yakking to their parents!  Babies will talk all day even though no one has any idea what they’re saying; toddlers will bore their parents silly by talking endlessly about obvious stuff; early schoolchildren will tell their parents about every kid in their class, to the point that they feel they know them as well as their own family.  Kids love to talk to their parents.  It feels great.


So why would they hold back?  Why keep a secret?


I’d say there are two reasons, really.  One is Fear, and the other is Power.


The Fear one is easy:  the child broke a vase, and has glued it together in hopes you’ll never find out, and sure isn’t going to tell you about it, or about how it happened when she was playing football in the house, or he was dancing to music he’s not supposed to listen to.  In the Harry Potter stories, the kids are always keeping secrets from the adults, even the ones who we know are good and would help them!  But it makes sense – those kids are terrified!


The Power one is a bit tougher to take, but it makes sense too.  Because children do so love to talk with their parents, it leaves them a bit powerless.  Just like any other kind of mad love, it leaves them with a bit of a helpless feeling.  And one of the biggest jobs of children is to Gain Power.  They need to test – what would happen if I didn’t tell Daddy something I promised I’d tell him?


This isn’t anything terrible or abnormal.  But it is important that the parents explain to the child why it was wrong to keep the secret.  Maybe there was a really important reason Daddy needed to know about that thing, that the kid didn’t realize.


But then, another secret will happen anyway, in a way the parent doesn’t even notice.  The child will have something they want to tell, and won’t, and the parent won’t even know there was ever a secret.  And in that moment, the child will experience the Power of keeping that secret.


And then, that will enable them, later in life, to be able to keep a secret at a time when it’s absolutely right and important.  Like when a friend tells them something that has to be kept quiet.  Or they’re entrusted with confidential information at work.  Or they just want to be polite about the fact that someone’s zipper is down or they have spinach on their teeth!


In other words, the reason children keep secrets from their parents is because they’re practicing how to be grownups.  Be proud!


Your Friend,



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