I Cannot Keep That Secret


“Mom, I need to tell you something. If I tell you a secret can you promise to keep it a secret?” -9yo Amelia

“I can promise to keep it a secret if it is a safe secret to keep. If it is an unsafe secret then I will need to tell another adult. Do you remember the difference? A safe secret is a surprise that will eventually be found out without anyone being hurt. An unsafe secret is holding in a lie or a hurt. Can you share with me what’s on your mind?” -Me

“Will I get in trouble? The kids told me not to tell anybody.” -Amelia

“That sounds like the kind of secret you probably should tell me because that sounds like an unsafe secret. You will not get in trouble for being honest about something you’ve done or for telling me something you were told not to tell anyone.” -Me

Safe vs unsafe secrets

Safe vs unsafe secrets

My daughter then told me the secret that indeed was not a secret I could have kept. The secret was about another child, a rumor that Amelia had heard through the gossip mill at school.

She and I discussed why it was an unsafe secret and why adults needed to know about what was going on. We talked about how her tummy voice felt when she was keeping the secret and what her tummy voice was saying to her. We discussed what she would do in a similar situation, and why as a family we make different choices to avoid that possibility in the first place (in this case, not allowing children to use social media). We talked about why what happened wasn’t the girl’s fault. We talked about why the other child the secret was about very much needed for someone to tell her secret so that she could be safe.

We don’t know the child or her family, so I just as easily could have said “it is none of our business, I’m sure the school knows” and been done with it. But that doesn’t teach my daughter to be a Helper in a time of need, nor does it teach her about sisterhood and taking care of one another. Shrugging our shoulders and burying the secret does not teach my daughter to use her voice when she encounters injustice.

The secret contained information I would have to reach out to authorities with, which is exactly what I did once we finished talking to ensure the people who needed to be aware of the situation were aware. Amelia’s information was accurate but old, and thankfully the adults who needed to know about and handle the situation were doing just that.

The day before, her secret had been that two girls brought an inch worm in from the playground and hid it in a classroom plant. That is a safe secret. Unless maybe you are the inchworm.

Last night’s secret was nightmare fuel. It was an unsafe secret.

With bigger kids come bigger problems. I open this space for dialogue with Amelia every night before bed, when she is most apt to pour out the the day’s events, trials, and tribulations. I make sure she knows I always have time for her, that I’m always interested in what she has to tell me. This week’s stories from third grade will be tomorrow’s stories about someone who cheated in school, a classmate who is sexually harassing another, a date who mistreated her, a friend who pressures her to pop a pill, the beer she and her friends stole and drank, a secret pregnancy her friend doesn’t know what to do about.

I have no idea what is ahead for us come middle school and high school, and I have no idea what kind of teenager she’ll be. Her dad and I are laying the foundation now so that her adventures as a teen are little bits of innocent trouble instead of giant heaps of the irreversible kind. She will grow up knowing I will always make time to sit on her bed to talk with her, I will always keep her safe secrets, and we will always work through the unsafe ones together.

We aren’t supposed to know what the future holds. We can only best prepare for it.

All she can know is that I will be her constant, and there is no secret in this world that could diminish my love for her.


Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 


  1. jennifer says:

    Check out Parenting Safe Children on Facebook. Feather provides lots of great strategies to help teach and protect children.

  2. Elizabeth Tobias says:

    every time my just-11 y.o. complains about limits on his computer access at school, the more convinced I am that they are located correctly.

  3. Thanks for the article! Are you able to give me examples of the questions you use at bedtime to initiate the nightly conversation with your daughter? Thank you!

    • Hi Brooke –
      Amelia and I are at the point now where she knows bedtime is our special, reserved time to go over her day so now she just starts talking and the problem is getting her to hush up and go to sleep! I ask open ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer, and I listen respectfully and see the issues from her eyes and heart. When we first started, and this was back in preschool, I would ask what was the silliest/happiest/nicest/saddest thing that happened during her day. Many families do this at dinner with the High/Low Game. As she got older we would talk about her teachers and friends more, as those seemed to be her greatest sources of stress. She is in third grade now and the girls in her class have trouble getting along so I’ll ask her about any “friendship knots” or “friendship tangles” at school. I ask her to problem solve, how she would picture a “do over”, coach her on how to be a leader with her friends or advocate for herself with a teacher, etc.

      Hope that helps and gives you some ideas for what will work best with your crew! 🙂

  4. We go one step further in our house and teach that surprises are okay, but secrets are not, and that people who ask you to keep secrets may be trying to make you or someone else unsafe so you should tell Mommy or Daddy right away.

    Of course, our children are still too young to remotely understand keeping things in confidence. I do sometimes discuss the concept with them, because I’m a student midwife and that means confidentiality is a big part of my work and I can’t always answer their questions about what somebody needed or why I saw them. But, at 4 and 5 years old, they are too young to be discreet, so the concept of private information doesn’t enter into our talks about surprises and secrets.

    When they’re a little older, we’ll have more talks about things that are private (like their thoughts or the contents of a diary) and how that’s different from being secret or a surprise.

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