Personal Privacy or Secret Keeping?

By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.

How many times has someone told you something and said, “Don’t tell anyone?” A natural response is to agree. You now know a secret which according to the website Rewire is one of 13 secrets the average person holds at any given moment.  

Often we rationalize our decision to “keep a secret” by equating it with respecting someone’s privacy. Not so. According to Bruce Muzik, a relationship repair expert, “Secrecy is the act of hiding information. Privacy is about being unobserved— being able to have [one’s] own experience of life without the eyes of anyone else.” The former U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis defines privacy as “The right to be left alone.” According to Dr. Robert Weiss, a relationship specialist, “Secrets break trust… privacy is simply not sharing parts of your life.”  

How challenging it is for us to distinguish between privacy and secrecy in our own lives but even more so as parents trying to help our children develop critical life skills. According to Louise Jensen, author of Being Honest: The Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy, “Keeping a secret is about hiding something from the world, separating yourself. It is ok to be private—not to share something if you feel uncomfortable doing so.” What happens, however, when privacy becomes unsafe — that uncomfortable feeling leads to a behavior that can be harmful to children themselves or others. Muzik elaborates that “We can’t know ourselves without being alone,” but when the possible uncomfortable feeling turns into fear motivating your behavior, privacy may become a secret. If someone tells a child not to tell their parents something, for example, they are trying to protect themselves or someone else. That secret can have a devastating consequence.  

Here are ways we may help our children learn to distinguish between privacy and secret-keeping: 

  • Facilitate conversations that are not judgmental so your child knows they can share something with you without being criticized or reprimanded. 
  • Respect your child’s confidentiality so they know what they share with you will not be told to anyone else (unless self-harm or harm to others is expressed). 
  • Make sure your child knows just how loved, respected, and supported they are and that the world is a better place by having them in it.     
  • Guide your child in acknowledging their fears and possible ways to diffuse those fears. 
  • Help your child identify what they can control in their lives (choice of friends, healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, etc.). 
  • Be a role model by sharing with your child choices you have made as to when you have decided to remain private (preparing a gift to give someone or working toward a goal) and when you have decided not to keep a secret (a friend told you they have started experimenting with drugs).  
  • Identify and implement household rules to validate the importance of privacy (dressing in private, knocking on closed doors, waiting for permission to enter). 
  • Encourage the privacy of family members (ex. Their brother fails a spelling test. This is not a secret, but the information should be kept private because it might be embarrassing). 
  • If possible, ensure your child has someone with whom they can talk, especially if they are trying to decide whether to share a secret. They might worry that the person that the secret is about would feel angry or betrayed if they find out the information from someone besides your child. 

At its best, privacy can provide security allowing a child to grow into a self-confident adult. Secrecy, in contrast, can promote self-doubt and an inability to trust themselves. Something to think about for ourselves as well as how we parent our children.

Amy Morin, “There’s a Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy.” Psychology Today 

Meghan Moravcik Walbert, “Teach Kids the Difference Between Secrets, Privacy and Surprises,” (4/30/21)  

Susan Kurlander

Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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