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Kim Estes, expert on child safety, relays this incident from a mother, who wrote, “I recently had to stop play dates between my child and a schoolmate when I discovered that the child’s mother had not once, not twice but three times had either asked my child to keep a secret or had offered to ‘not tell your mom’ about something that had happened on a play date.”

Would you have done the same? Is the impulse to keep secrets from you so serious a problem it’s a reason to limit a friendship?

Well, yes. And here’s why. Anyone who asks a child to keep a secret is asking the child to lie. Obviously, this is a problem. In addition, someone who asks a child to keep a secret is teaching the child to practice deceit and trickery. This is confusing to child who in all innocence doesn’t see her parents as “the enemy” or as people from whom she needs to conceal what she’s doing.

Children keep secrets, of course, and the older the child the more secrets he will have from you. Just as you have secrets you don’t share with your children – or even with your best friend – so will your older child or teenager grow to distinguish between facts she wants to share and facts she wants to keep private. This ability to edit information for various audiences is an indicator of her growing social sensitivity and it usually doesn’t mean your child has anything earth-shaking to conceal.

But it’s different when the child who would share something with you is required not to. Sometimes a child is coerced into silence by a playmate who threatens to end their friendship if the child tells. Sometimes a child’s impulse to be truthful is held hostage by a friend’s parent or older sibling, who implies that telling will bring shame and unhappiness down on the child’s head. Embarrassment and shame are keen emotions among elementary school kids. The threat of exposure – even of something the child doesn’t understand was improper – is a powerful brake on your child’s conscience. Anyone who asks your child to keep something “our little secret” doesn’t have your child’s best interests at heart.

And that’s the real danger. Even though the first secret your child is asked to keep from you may not be very important, the second might be. This is how child sexual abuse is perpetrated and this is how kids are introduced to pornography, drugs, and shoplifting. Children are easily led. They go along with something unwittingly, then find themselves committing to secrecy. Parents who said they never knew are parents whose children swore never to tell.

You want to keep the lines of communication open. You want your children to believe they can tell you anything, anything at all, and you won’t go ballistic. You want your children to be able to look a would-be conspirator in the eye and think to themselves,

“No, I can’t keep this quiet. My Mom and Dad will want to know.”

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.