The Secret Sauce: Keeping Our Children’s Confidences

Posted on May 3, 2018


My daughter was eight years old when “secrets” became a thing in our family. Nitasha would tell her dad a secret and ask him not to tell me and vice versa. We were all caught up in this—including her grandparents.

There was one weekend, though, that one of her secrets had broader implications. When I picked Nitasha up from school on a Friday afternoon, she whispered, “Mom, I want to tell you a secret! But you have to promise not to tell anyone!”

“Sure, Tash,” I whispered back. “What is it?”

“Jenna found $20 in her dad’s drawer, and she borrowed it,” Nitasha confided. “Today, she shared $5 each with Shelly and Nina and me, and we’re all going to buy matching lip gloss with the money! Can we stop by the mall so I can buy watermelon lip gloss?”

No! I thought to myself. We are not buying watermelon lip gloss with stolen money! Why is Jenna ‘borrowing’ money from her dad’s drawer anyway?” But of course, I knew our kids’ trust had to be handled with kid gloves (pun intended). So I decided to use my favorite buying-time line: “Let’s plan on doing that tomorrow. I need to think about this a little.”

Though this might seem misleading—as though I were committing to a shopping trip the next day—when it comes to handling a child’s trust it is imperative to think things through.

When Nitasha was in bed, I revisited the issue. It was clear that I had three choices:

First, I could tell Nitasha that we were not having any part of this, that the money had been “borrowed” without permission and Nitasha had to tell Jenna that and return the money to her. It would be tough, but I could help Nitasha phrase this as, “I was thinking about this, and it doesn’t seem right to me. Here’s the money back, and I think you should tell your dad because he could think that you stole it.”

I would explain to Nitasha the difference between “borrowing” and “stealing.” Lesson learned for her. As for Jenna and the other girls, I could chalk it up to “not our business” and keep the trust intact between my daughter and me. I felt this would be an empowering learning lesson for Nitasha and enable her to handle her own issues with friends in the future.

My second choice was to tell Nitasha that I was going to pull Jenna aside when I picked her up from school on Monday and talk to her myself, guiding her to do the right thing by asking her friends to return the money and then giving it back to her father. She’d also have to tell him the truth about “borrowing” the money. In this case, I was risking Jenna’s being upset at Nitasha for telling me the secret, but this option would empower Jenna—practically force her actually—into taking the proper steps.

My third choice was, of course, to talk to Jenna’s dad directly and let him know what had happened. This would be the most volcanic option; there was no telling how he would handle the situation or how Jenna might react to Nitasha. In this case, I risked Nitasha’s friendship, and it might cause Jenna and the other girls to exclude Nitasha from their group or even calling her a tell-tale.

As I thought through these scenarios, it became clear that the first choice was the right direction, especially because it would give Nitasha an opportunity to learn how to approach such situations in the future.

So the next morning, as the kids lolled around the house enjoying their lazy Saturday morning, I pulled Nitasha aside to discuss the three choices. I wanted her involved in the decision making. As I rolled out the options, her eyes popped with fear, but I asked her to simply listen. I told her, “I’m with you on this, and we will work this out together.” Being her mother’s daughter, Nitasha asked if she could think about this and get back to me in a little while. Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I loved that she was buying some time to think this through.

About an hour later, she came up to me, ready for the discussion. “How about I talk to Jenna but have you standing by my side,” she said, “in case I get scared or Jenna gets upset? Because if she gets upset or scared, I wouldn’t know how to handle it.”

I thought it was brilliant that she chose to fuse my first two choices, knowing her own emotional limitations. Over the weekend, Nitasha became even more convinced that this was the right thing to do, and I applauded her for making her own decision, even though it was a tough one.

Monday morning we got to school early, as we were walking to find Jenna on the playground, Nitasha surprised me again, by asking if I would stand a little distance away. I could see she was prepping herself for handling this alone with the least involvement from me. When she found Jenna, she pulled her close to the wall, keeping me at arm’s length. To make things a little easier, I turned my back to them as they started their conversation.

But I could hear Nitasha whisper to Jenna, “I wanted to talk to you in private about our lip gloss pact. How do you feel about borrowing the $20 from your dad’s drawer without him knowing?”

“Not really good,” Jenna replied, “I was scared all weekend that he would find out and I would get into trouble. I couldn’t sleep on Friday, but I was too scared to tell him since I had already given the money to you guys.”

My eight-year-old shocked me with her response: “My parents always say to listen to your heart first, and I should have listened earlier and told you to return the money. I’m sorry that I didn’t. When I asked my mom to take me to the mall, I felt in my heart that it wasn’t right. I’m giving you this money back, and you should get it back from Shelly and Nina, too. Then please tell your dad that you “borrowed” this money by accident, and I promise you will get into less trouble than if he were to find out on his own.”

In a teary voice, Jenna said, “You’re right, Nitasha. I’m going to do that. I’m scared, but I will do it. Please tell your mom not to tell my dad. I want to tell him myself.”

That evening, Jenna called to say that she had told her dad, and, although he was a little upset at first, most of all he felt proud and happy that Jenna had made the right decision.

“She’s not even getting grounded, Mom!” Nitasha related. “The truth does make everyone’s heart happy!”

If we give our children the opportunity to help resolve their own issues, they learn a life skill through personal experience. Not only did I feel good about how bravely Nitasha handled this, I also realized how empowering it is for our kids when we guide the way instead of always leading. Our kids are a lot smarter than we think they are. Most importantly, Nitasha, Jenna, and I experienced the power of human connection. When we put our energies together, we have infinite potential to resolve issues and communicate fruitfully. We also all learned the magic in empathy, kindness, courage, and forgiveness, while deepening trust at the same time.

What’s the secret sauce? Empower your children. Guide and step aside.

Which choice would you have made first? Do you have a story about “secrets” that you or your child learned from? Please share so we can all learn together!