Hush Your Mouth

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Disclaimer: The secret revealed in this column has been previously revealed by the original bearer of the secret; all confidentiality agreements -- even pinky promises -- are therefore null and void.

I'm just now learning what to do with the secrets.

In the old days -- a year or so ago -- the secrets tended toward matters of bugs, worms and vegetables. As in: "Don't tell anyone, but my favorite bug isn't caterpillars." Or, "Don't tell Sasha, but even though I make her pick up worms, I don't mind picking up worms." Or, "Please don't tell Daddy, but one time when I was 4 I hid my peas under my noodles."

These secrets did not give me pause; for the most part my daughter forgot them almost as quickly as she said them. Poof! I never revealed these secrets so much as I may have woven them into the text of larger stories to grandparents and fellow travelers under the rubric "Kids say the darndest things."

Now my daughter is 8. The other day, we were lying on the backyard hammock while, nearby, my husband was planting bulbs. Anna informed me that she had a secret. "A big one." She was not sure she wanted to reveal it to me. "It's a kid secret," she said, something that happened in school -- and something that no grown-up knew about.

I grew concerned. What if she, or one of her friends, was in danger? On the other hand, I didn't want to pry. I wanted to give her the space to acquire a growing social independence. She didn't have to tell me everything that happened in her life. Did she? Would I be encouraging her to betray one of her friends if I asked her to reveal some information a friend had told her in confidence? This was getting tricky.

I came up with a rule. "It's okay to tell parents secrets," I said. Even if a friend swears you to secrecy, you can tell your parents. I told her that parents were sort of like "base" when you play tag. A free zone. You could come to parents with secrets, dump them there, and trust that your parents would do the right thing. I went on and on about this, making the rule up as I went along.

Alex did not miss a beat with his daffodil bulbs, and so I assumed he was in agreement. I told Anna her secret was safe with me. "All right," she said. We were toe to toe on the hammock, each dangling a leg over the edge. "Now, this is the truth," she said. "You can't tell anyone, okay?" I made a pinky promise. "Okay, last year Morgan loved Ronnie," she said. "He was her boyfriend!"

"Oh," I said, trying to sound impressed. "Well, did Ronnie know about this?"

"No way!" she said. "Don't you dare tell him!"

"Of course not," I said, closing my eyes and enjoying the warmth of the sun. My little girl was, it seemed, still a little girl after all. The new secrets were as innocent as the old. Ronnie and Morgan were just the new worms and peas.

Later that day, a phone call. It was Janice, a.k.a. Zoe's Mom, a friend who often hauls Zoe, Anna, Ronnie and Morgan to after-school art class. "Hey, did you know last year Morgan loved Ronnie?" I said casually. It was a cute kid story. Janice and I share all our cute kid stories. She barely had a chance to respond before there came from the other side of the room a loud, and booming: "Hey!" It was my husband. "What are you doing?"

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