Secrets

[AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Due to the holidays, no new post this week.  Back after the new year.  Happy Holidays!]

In a recent article about the way technology is changing childhood, I referred to a book called “The Disappearance of Childhood”, by the late educator and cultural critic, Neil Postman.  In it he writes, “Without secrets . . . there can be no such thing as childhood.”  What does he mean by that?  Are we meant to keep secrets from children?

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.  They were exposed in every way to adult life and behavior without any thought that they needed to be shielded from anything – from adult sex to adult labor.

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.  Psychologists, educators and researchers have contributed to the idea that children’s individuality must be preserved by nurturing, and that the capacity for self-control, deferred gratification and logical thought must be helped to develop.  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 cognitive and emotional 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.

Today, parents still would like to keep certain information – both personal and about the world – from their children, But in both spheres it is increasingly impossible to do so.  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.  How does the idea that there are “secrets” children may not be ready to hear fit into today’s world?

There are really two aspects to the question.  One has to do with the content of the secret, the other with the way the information is delivered.  In one sense, secrets – especially on the family level – cannot be kept from children.  Information parents think would be disturbing to children is undoubtedly disturbing to them, the parents.  Children are sensitive to, and pick up, parents worries or upsets.  A mom spoke to me about changes in her daughter’s behavior, including the fact that she had become very clingy toward her father.  It turned out that the father was mourning the death of his own father, which the child had never been told about.  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 experience “facts” from an adult point of view and may  have trouble translating them 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.

Actually, children show in their behavior and with their questions, when they are ready to know about something.  We sometimes think that giving information means having to tell a whole story with all the facts.  Most often that is not the case.  There is an old joke about a little boy asking his mother where he came from.  Mom thinks that means telling him all about how babies are born.  She takes a deep breath and launches into the story, only to be interrupted by the child saying, “No, No.  I mean my friend in school came from New Jersey.  Where did I come from?”

Most stories are told over time, with children changing the subject whenever they have heard as much as they want to know at any point in the telling.  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.

Recently, someone who as an adult learned a family secret that went back to her grandmother spoke about how it changed her image of her family. The event involved, taken out of the context of time, place, and people, suggested to her a “dark side” to her family, which required rewriting her personal history.  Perhaps, if she had learned about it as part of that history, she would not have found it as shocking, and it would have become instead, just another fact about her family.  

Parents have a right to their privacy.  But 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.