When my husband took along our then-four-year-old son to buy a Christmas gift for me, the little one was excited. It was a dad-and-son day out, and he was giddy at the prospect of surprising mom. So off they went. My husband, of course, swore our son to secrecy that under no circumstance was he to tell me what they bought. I was only supposed to find out once I opened the gift.
But no sooner than they had come home that my son comes up to me and announces, “Mommy, we bought you a fax machine!” I was puzzled as to why they thought a fax machine would be useful to me just when everyone was on the verge of going digital, but the look on my husband’s face and the laughter he was holding back told me “fax machine” wasn’t an accurate description of the gift they had just bought. He just told our son that’s what it’s called, knowing he was bound to slip sooner or later and reveal their secret. (It wasn’t a fax machine, thank goodness!)
Silvana Clark, author of Fun-Filled Parenting, says kids 3 years and up have more developed communication skills. “It’s a wonderful leap, because your child can start to have real conversations with adults,” she tells Parents. “The downside is that kids this age don’t understand what’s appropriate to share and what isn’t, unless you tell them.” Obviously, that didn’t work for my son, but here are a few other things you can do.
How to explain to your kids what is private (like a secret)
“Many parents just tell their kids that something is private, but kids often don’t really know what ‘private’ means,” says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist. It will be a long way to explain, so start somewhere, like matters involving the home. “It’s best to help kids develop the skills to make their own judgments,” says Clark.
Tell her to check with you
Talking to your child about what is private is not foolproof. Tell your child that when there is something she is not sure about, it’s best to ask you first. Something’s bound to go wrong, be wary (she may ask you but say it loudly enough for the other person to hear. Yikes!), but it’s a step you’re bound to take.
There will be times when you can’t actually have a conversation with your child to warn her what she can’t say. The easiest solution would be to agree on a secret sign so you could let her know quickly. It could be a blink, or a hand signal you could agree on beforehand.
Do damage control
If, despite these precautions, your child still blabs on some occasions, just do what is right and apologize. As for your child, says Susan Epstein, clinical social worker and parenting coach, “Tell her, ‘That is not appropriate,’ or ‘That is not something we say in public.’”