Sharing Secrets with Children
The late educator and cultural critic, Neil Postmen, in his classic book “The Disappearance of Childhood”, writes, “Without secrets ... there can be no such thing as childhood.” What does he mean by that?
Postman was writing about the impact of television in particular, which at the time of his writing was the pervasive new visual medium to which children were fast becoming exposed. His point was that because television viewing requires no special skill, as does reading, it is readily accessible to children. They don’t have to break the code, as it were, to learn about things that adults believe they are not ready to see, hear or know.
Our contemporary view of childhood as a special time, requiring special protection, supervision and education, is a relatively modern one. In earlier times, children were either infants or small adults, exposed in every way to adult life and behavior without any thought that they needed to be shielded from anything.
Over time, numerous social and cultural influences contributed to the idea that children are different from adults, that they must mature into adulthood, and that adults have the responsibility for their growth and development. A child’s knowledge of life would be under the control of adults in accordance with his level of development.
It is in that sense that education was intended to make information available to children in accordance with their developmental stage, their readiness to process certain material. It is this ability to give information in accordance with a child’s readiness to receive it that has been interrupted by the advent of first television, and now the newer media. When Postman writes of adult secrets, he is referring to the ability to withhold information from children that adults think they are not ready to have.
In today’s world, parents find it increasingly impossible to withhold both personal and world information from their children. World news of a disturbing nature is disseminated widely through media that is all pervasive. Personal matters seem no longer to be private in the face of social media and its encouragement of self-exposure.
In one sense, secrets - especially on the family level - cannot be kept from children. Information parents think would be disturbing to children is often something that disturbs the parents themselves. Children are sensitive to, and pick up, parents worries or upsets. When children don’t know the secret, they do know there is one, and the unknown is often more upsetting than the reality.
Often, our “secrets” are matters we find too difficult to talk about. Because the information seems disturbing, it may be hard to find the appropriate language to use when talking to a child. We may have trouble translating “facts” from an adult point of view into a child’s world and way of thinking. We’re not sure what our children are ready to hear, and when they are ready to hear it.
Children show in their behavior and with their questions, when they are ready to know about something. Most stories are told over time, with children changing the subject whenever they have heard as much as they want to know. In this way, even matters that may seem traumatic are processed a little at a time, becoming just accepted facts in children’s own story about themselves or their family. This is a different experience from learning something within an adult construct later in life.
If we are thinking about protecting our children, we are best off being the ones to share our “secrets” ourselves, as our children show us they are ready to hear them.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.