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Children Should Never Be Asked to Keep Secrets

Like all parents, my greatest fear is that something bad will happen to my children and I won’t be able to stop it. Now I know a new fear: that something bad will happen to my children and I was the one who put them in harm’s way.

I’m talking about choosing a babysitter who turned out to be all wrong for our family.

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Before hiring the new babysitter, I checked both my references and my gut. All the feedback that came back was positive. She was loving, attentive and responsible. Other than a tiny complaint that she wasn’t always on time, the reviews were four-star.

So, the other morning when my 4-year-old daughter mentioned that this same babysitter told my daughter to keep a secret from me, I had several reactions. First, I thought about the most important thing that I’ve learned from educating myself about child abuse (and from watching years of Oprah)—it’s abusive for a trusted adult to ask a child to keep a secret.

I asked my daughter to explain what she meant.

“Oh, she told me that there are some things that are ‘just between us’ and none of your business, mommy,” said my daughter. The subject of the secret as I understood it was something about how the babysitter wished that I hired her more often. Turns out that the babysitter often asked my daughter who else we used for babysitting, but told my daughter not to tell me she was asking these questions.

I was sick to my stomach about the prospect of my daughter feeling like she had to keep something from me and my husband.

“I see,” I said and went on to explain how she should never have to keep a secret and that we don’t believe in keeping secrets.

I tried not to panic or alarm my daughter as I struggled with my second reaction—tremendous guilt and shame that I had picked out someone to watch her who would invite her to keep a secret. I couldn’t stop telling myself that I had endangered my child. I was sick to my stomach about the prospect of my daughter feeling like she had to keep something from me and my husband or else she would get “in trouble” with the babysitter. The good news is that my daughter is actually terrible at keeping secrets, and for that I am more grateful than I could ever express.

Obviously, I will never call that woman to babysit again, though I did have a conversation with her where I explained how I felt about her request of my daughter to keep something from me. We had a productive and open conversation that was difficult, but I’m glad we had it.

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I called a child therapist and asked if there was anything else I could do about the situation. He told me to look my daughter in the eye and tell her how proud I was of her for telling me that the babysitter asked her to keep a secret, which I did immediately. When my daughter asked me why I was crying about it, I told her the best I could: “I’m grateful that you are safe and that I can learn more every day about how to take good care of you.”

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