The whispering starts on the drive to gymnastics. My nine-year-old daughter and her best friend are sharing secrets and other intel, talking in hushed voices so I can’t hear. Later, Avery reveals the gossip they’re exchanging is benign: which boy is cute, what the teacher said about stinky feet and the looming mysteries of puberty.
Whispering rumours and truths, followed by giggling, is a developmentally appropriate “right of passage” for tweens, especially girls, says Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “As children get older, around nine, friendships become defined by intimacy or sharing, and the sharing of secrets is one of those ways friendship is developed,” she says.
Sharing personal or inside information forms a bond. At this age kids are also starting to forge identities separate from their family, and part of that growth is exchanging knowledge with peers on subjects they might be tight-lipped about with their parents, says Schonert-Reichl.
As Avery is growing up, she’s confiding in me less often, and I worry about the change—one day those whispers might not be so harmless. For now, I likely have nothing to worry about.
“Between the ages of nine and 11, most kids won’t be getting into trouble—these are little secrets,” says Julie Freedman Smith, a parenting coach and co-founder of Parenting Power in Calgary. She recommends discussing secrets now, so your kid will come to you when the secrets become “big” (like when they involve risky behaviour).
Starting the conversation Start by talking to your child about which secrets are OK to keep—her BFF’s crush or what she’s going to wear to a dance—and which ones to spill to a parent. Freedman Smith’s rule: If the secret makes the child uncomfortable, or if keeping it could be dangerous (it could hurt someone physically or emotionally), kids should tell a trusted adult.
Deb Lowther has had this conversation with her three daughters, ages 13, 11 and nine. “I always tell them there are good secrets and then there are bad secrets,” she says. “Defining the difference is the key.” Lowther defines a bad secret as something sneaky or negative, like saying mean things about someone. Good secrets are nice surprises that will eventually be revealed, or private issues best kept to a small circle of close friends or family.
Lately, Lowther’s middle daughter has been whispering with her older sister about wanting to wear mascara and needing a sports bra, and Lowther is supportive of privacy secrets, too. “It builds trust between the sisters,” she says.
Keeping communication open Secret-telling has changed with the rise of social media, but electronic surveillance is tricky, experts warn. “You don’t want to be intrusive or control everything,” says Schonert-Reichl, “but the research has shown, the more you know about your child’s friends, and about their parents, the better adjusted your kids will be.”
Lowther follows her daughter and her daughter’s friends on Instagram so she can stay in the loop. Parents should warn kids about the risks of sharing personal information or images electronically or on social media, and encourage them to be nice and think about what they share.
Parents should also keep the lines of communication open and ask their kids directly if they have something they need to tell. If you suspect bad secrets are being spread, Schonert-Reichl recommends contacting the teacher, who may have insight into peer group relationship dynamics.
Schonert-Reichl also urges talking about what makes a good friend, particularly if it seems like your child is spending time with someone who uses secrets to ostracize or bully others.
Thankfully, Avery isn’t using social media yet, and I’m comfortable with her friends. But I’ll keep asking about the secrets, and I hope she’ll keep telling me, especially when they move beyond boys and bras.
Did you know? There’s a time and place for secrets. Parenting coach Julie Freedman Smith says kids should never whisper during class or at the dinner table, and whispering should never actively exclude others, whether it’s a classmate, friend or sibling.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline “I've got a secret,” p. 67.