Secrets vs. Surprises: Why Parents Need to Teach Kids the Difference

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
February 23, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

The first few times Chloe babysat for the Turners, she followed all the instructions. Their daughter Marcy was allowed to watch one episode of a pre-approved show before dinner and be in bed with the lights out by 8 pm. Chloe was instructed to keep the house locked at all times, and under no circumstances was she allowed to let anyone in the house. The family grew to trust her and relied on her most weekends to watch Marcy. 

As time passed, Chloe slowly disregarded the rules. As soon as Marcy’s parents would leave for the evening, Chloe’s boyfriend would come over. Marcy didn’t like the way Chloe’s boyfriend made her feel. 

One evening, Marcy was upset with Chloe; she felt uncomfortable with the way Chloe’s boyfriend was talking. Even though Marcy didn’t understand what he was saying, she felt nervous. She finally got the courage to confront Chloe, “I don’t like your boyfriend. I know he’s not allowed here. When my parents get home, I’m going to tell them.”

Chloe and her boyfriend laughed off the comment and replied: “You know, snitches get stitches!” They repeatedly warned Marcy, “This is our little secret – nobody likes little girls who tattle tale”!

They made Marcy believe that if she tattled on them, they would tell her parents that she was a liar and she’d get in trouble for being a bad girl. 

These threats kept Marcy quiet. She didn’t want to get stitches, she wanted to be liked, and she didn’t want to get in trouble. 

So, Marcy kept quiet. 

This story isn’t meant to scare parents away from using babysitters but to show one example of how secret-keeping can be burdensome and problematic for kids. This blog aims to teach parents about the potential risks of secret-keeping and practical ways to implement house rules that promote truth-telling and safety.

Why Secrets Are a Problem

Secrets are an abuser’s best friend. When kids are told to keep something a secret and made to fear truth-telling, it prevents them from getting the help they need in unsafe situations.

Even though some secrets are intended to be fun and harmless, teaching kids to keep secrets is problematic because they don’t have the logical skills to differentiate between safe and unsafe secrets. 

An unsafe secret is one that, if kept hidden, could allow abuse, inappropriate behaviour or danger to continue. These are secrets that make a child feel scared, confused or uncomfortable. 

Keeping harmful secrets can negatively impact children in many ways:

  • A child may feel guilty for not telling or burdened by secret keeping.
  • A child may feel responsible for the outcomes of withholding the truth. 
  • A child might feel helpless to stop abusive behaviours from continuing or escalating.
  • A child may become withdrawn, anxious, and/or depressed.

Abusers often tell children they have to keep a secret or they’ll get in trouble. Secrets are how abusers can get away with hurting others. 

This is why it’s critical that children feel empowered to speak up to a trusted adult right away. Examples of safe people for children to talk to are parents, teachers, school counsellors, doctors, or even a friend’s parent.

Related Post: 4 Body Safety Tools to Protect Your Toddler and Preschooler

How to Teach the Difference Between Surprises and Secrets

1. Use examples from their own life

When we are teaching kids the difference between secrets and surprises, it can help to offer straightforward, simple explanations. Consider using examples from their own life to help them grasp the concepts and illustrate the differences more clearly.

When you discuss surprises with your child, include these details: 

  • Surprises are meant to be fun and exciting.
  • Surprises make us and others feel good. 
  • Surprises are always shared eventually.

“Remember when we threw a surprise party for Aunt Anne? We didn’t tell her we were planning a party because it was so fun to see the look on her face when she came home, and all her friends were waiting in her house to celebrate with her!”

When you discuss secrets with your child, include these details:

  • Secrets are meant to be kept and not shared – they exclude others. 
  • Secrets don’t make us or others feel good; they can make us feel nervous or sad.
  • Secrets are never shared. 

“Remember the time your babysitter told you not to tell me that she was letting you watch adult movies, and they ended up giving you nightmares? That’s an example of why we don’t tell each other secrets.”

Teach Your Child Body Safety and Consent!

Child Sleeping

2. Emphasize that truth-telling won’t get them in trouble 

Kids often keep quiet because they’re afraid of getting in trouble for telling the truth. This is why it’s so important to emphasize to children that telling the truth won’t get them in trouble. 

“You won’t ever be in trouble if you come to me with any secret someone told you to keep – even if you think you might have done something you weren’t supposed to.”

Children need to feel safe to come to us. This means caregivers need to monitor their own reactions and responses when children tell the truth. 

3. Use age-appropriate explanations

Discussing the nuances of secrets and surprises requires adjusting your approach based on your child’s age, developmental stage and personality. 

You know your child best – keep this in mind when you’re teaching your child about secrets and surprises. Kids with a more sensitive temperament need high censorship when we talk about the tricky or harmful elements of secret keeping. As well, what is appropriate for a 6-year-old will likely overwhelm a 3-year-old. Tailor the conversation to your child’s maturity and comprehension level.

For toddlers and preschoolers, focus on keeping it simple and straightforward:

“Secrets make us feel sad; surprises make us feel happy!”

“Christmas presents are a surprise because we eventually know what they are, and they make us feel good!”

For school-aged kids, you can offer more specific information and anecdotes, and examples of trusted adults they can talk to if someone asks them to keep a secret. 

“Pretend one of your classmates steals candy from the teacher’s desk and tells you not to tattle, or no one will be your friend. That’s not true. You can tell the teacher, and you will still have friends.”

“If anyone tells you to keep a secret, you can tell me, Mrs. Drake, Nana or Auntie Beth.”

For older kids with more logical thinking skills, you can discuss the more complex components of secrets and surprises. For example, distinguish the difference between keeping something a secret and keeping something private. 

“There is a difference between secrets and privacy. We don’t keep things a secret because secrets can exclude others and be hurtful. Keeping something private is one way we keep our personal information, like our name and address, safe from people we don’t trust.”

Related Post: Body Safety: How to Explain Private vs. Public to Kids

4. Practice and role-play scenarios

Play is one of the most effective ways to teach tricky concepts to kids. It also helps them build confidence because they can practice different scenarios. These opportunities give your child the freedom to make mistakes and ask questions. 

“Let’s practice what you could say if someone at the playdate asks you to keep a secret that makes you feel worried, scared, or confused.”

“You can pretend to be the bully at school, and I’ll pretend to be you. You’re going to do something against the rules and tell me to keep it a secret. I will show you what you can say when this happens.”

5. Encourage, affirm and model truth-telling

When your child comes to you with the truth, affirm their actions by letting them know they did the right thing. This is one way to reinforce truth-telling behaviour. 

“I’m so proud of you for telling me about this. You did the right thing by sharing this with me.”

If we want to create a truth-telling culture in our home, caregivers need to model the behaviours they want to see. Let your children see you truth-telling, even when it’s tricky. 

“Hey, hun. Dad and I saw your Valentine’s chocolates on the counter last night, and we snacked on a few without asking you first. It didn’t feel good to keep that from you, so I wanted to let you know.”

Creating a “No Secrets” House Rule

As parents, it’s important to create an environment that discourages any form of secret-keeping and model the behaviours we want to see. One way we can implement a secret-free home is by creating house rules that encourage truth-telling. These house rules aim to cultivate open, trusting relationships where your child feels comfortable coming to you.

Examples of House Rules that cultivate truth-telling:

  1. This is a secret-free family. 
  2. No one gets in trouble for telling the truth (Note: There may be consequences for actions, but this is different from punishments, shaming lectures, or threats). 
  3. We always tell a trusted adult when someone says we have to keep something a secret.
  4. We never trust or believe someone who says that we will get hurt for telling the truth. 

Keep in mind that truth-telling shouldn’t be forced. Instead of demanding a child tell you the truth, be patient and create a space where truth-telling feels safe and easy for them. Too much pressure on a child can be interpreted as unsafe, making them less inclined to tell the truth. 

This might sound like: 

“It seems like you have something on your mind but don’t want to talk about it right now. That’s okay, but know I’m always here whenever you’re ready.” 

Offer regular check-ins, making it a routine to touch base with your child. 

“Did anything feel tricky when you were at the birthday party today?”

Asking open-ended questions can give your child opportunities to share what’s on their mind. 

It wasn’t until later in her life that Marcy told her parents the truth about Chloe. As a parent, she wanted to give her kids the tools she didn’t have when she was a child. She wanted her kids to feel safe telling her the truth. Marcy created a “secret-free” culture in her home and emphasized to her kids that no one would get in trouble for being honest. 

To help you navigate conversations about secrets and more body safety topics in an age-appropriate, engaging way, we’ve created a helpful printable, The Body Safety Toolkit! Through colouring worksheets, games and fun activities, the toolkit will help your child: 

  • Identify their personal team of safe people.
  • Learn the correct names for body parts.
  • Understand public and private spaces and body parts.
  • Say “NO” when needed.
  • Understand the difference between secrets and surprises.

Buy The Body Safety Toolkit

Get simple parenting tools sent straight to your inbox.

    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.