Dear Jenny: My Toddler Asked Me To Keep A Secret From Her Dad
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My 4-year-old daughter and I just had our first "Mommy, don't tell Daddy about this" moment, and I am TORN. She asked me not to tell Daddy because she doesn't want him to be "frustrated" at her, a sentiment that I am SURE would make him feel like utter sh*t, as he is a Very Good Dad, and I'm not really sure what prompted it. The secret was that she wanted to confide something mean (it was mean) about another kid in class. She knew it wasn't nice, but wanted to tell me, but not her dad. So ... what's up with that? And also am I supposed to share secrets with her dad?
Dear Whisper Sounds,
Here's the short answer: Yes, you are supposed to share secrets with her dad.
Keeping secrets is a dangerous habit for young girls to learn. Also, your daughter needs practice in the knowledge that no matter what she tells either of her parents, they will love and support her.
When she gets older, she may want to confide in you about more complicated secrets: body changes, sex, and drugs, for example. If you set a habit now that your daughter goes to you about these things and you don't share them with your husband, your husband will be cut out of a large part of his daughter's life — not only knowing about it but participating in it. And you will lose the benefit of his advice as well as his listening ear as you try to parent your daughter alone through some pretty critical stages.
I'm in the opposite situation as you: I have a son, so I can imagine him one day going to his father to discuss the experience of being a man in the world, since I won't be able to relate to it or offer guidance from experience. It warms my heart to think that my husband, who already is an affectionate and engaged parent, will have a close, special, and unique relationship with my son.
But you can be sure that if he doesn't tell me what they talked about I WILL LOSE MY F*CKING MIND ARE YOU CRAZY I GESTATED THAT CHILD FOR NINE MONTHS HIS THOUGHTS BELONG TO ME.
I know that a large part of my parents' relationship is talking about me and my brother. I assume that if I tell one parent something, they tell the other. I don't always discuss things with both parents, but it gives me a sense of comfort that at the very least, they both know what's going on with me.
The things I talk about with my brother? That's different. We don't repeat to our parents the conversations we have about them, or other things RIGHT JESSE YOU DIDN'T TELL THEM ABOUT THE TIME I HAD SEX WITH THAT GUY I MET AT THE LAKE WHILE THEY WERE SLEEPING UPSTAIRS RIGHT.
That's because that's a different kind of relationship. It's the same as with friends. Your friends and siblings are your buffer zone against all f*cked-up things, including your parents. Those secrets are GOLDEN, and if anyone tells those secrets, they're FIRED.
But in the case of your daughter, you're her parent. Your commitment is to her overall health and well-being, and sometimes that means knowing when to say no to her requests.
She made an incredibly intelligent choice in choosing to share her feelings at all and then approaching the person she felt would give her the response she wanted.
Now, your husband's feelings. Of course his feelings could be hurt. My son just turned 2, and only recently has he gone into a mommy phase. I'm talking wailing with disappointment when my husband goes in for him in the middle of the night, constantly wanting me to pick him up, cuddling and kissing me first thing in the morning for UP TO AN HOUR I'M NOT KIDDING, and calling for "Mama" all day long.
But this is recent. For the first 19 months of his life, I was boobs on a stick. He didn't love me, he loved my breasts (if one can even call them that anymore), and the person he was most excited to see at the end of the day was my husband. SO ANNOYING. When my husband walked into the house, if my son was sitting at the kitchen table, he would leap off his chair, howling, "Ooh! Ooh!" like a monkey, and make it as fast as he could to the front door, which involved an incredibly inefficient sort of arm-pumping, bouncing, butt-swiveling motion, throw his arms around his dad's neck, and cry, "Pops!"
When I walked in the house? Nada. I could put all my stuff down: my purse, my lunch bag, whatever other bags I'd managed to accumulate in the course of a day. Put my keys in the bowl. Take off my shoes. Take off whatever piece of clothing had been bothering me all day and change into something ragged and torn. Walk to the kitchen. And the little motherfucker WOULDN'T EVEN LOOK UP. SCRIBBLED AWAY MAKING STUPID CIRCLES WITH HIS BACK TO ME. I FED YOU FROM MY BODY FOR NINETEEN MONTHS AND NOW THIS.
Your daughter is going to have a different relationship with both of you, the same way you have a different relationship with any two people in your life. You know you go to certain people with some things because of the reaction you want to get, and to other people when you want something different. Ever been a crisis? You don't even think about who you're going to call: You know.
I believe your husband is an excellent parent, and your daughter wanting to go to you is not a reflection of her feelings about this. She had a big feeling and was healthy enough to know she needed to get it out — and felt safe enough to share it with one of you. This is extraordinary, both for her emotional development and your family dynamic. And the reason she wanted to share it with you instead of her father could be many things. Maybe she worried he would ask more questions than she wanted to answer. Maybe she didn't want him to be disappointed in her because she's heard him express disappointment with other people. Whatever the case, she made an incredibly intelligent choice in choosing to share her feelings at all and then approaching the person she felt would give her the response she wanted.
And what a difficult decision for you to have to make in the moment! Of course your instinct is to protect your daughter's trust and keep the lines of communication open — and doesn't it feel good when someone comes to you with their juicy gossip?
Over time, this will erode trust, and at worst, it will build an us-against-them dynamic.
But you are not just you, Whisper Sounds. You are half of a parental unit, and you can't keep secrets from your husband (unless you say you're going to a café to write your advice column and instead you go to Factory 2-U for 45 minutes and spend $26 on three shirts and a dress WHAT A BARGAIN). You especially can't keep secrets about the most important thing in the world to you both: your daughter. Over time, this will erode trust, and at worst, it will build an us-against-them dynamic, with you and your daughter on one side and your husband on the other. You have the chance to change course right now.
The next time you have a quiet moment with your daughter — maybe at bedtime, or at the end of the day when things are calm — tell her, "Remember that thing you told me? I'm so grateful you told me. Sometimes people have big feelings, and it helps so much to sort them out by talking to someone. I have feelings like that, too. I'm so glad you trusted me to tell me, and no matter what feelings you have, I love you very much.
"Remember when I said I wouldn't tell your father? I've been thinking. I don't feel comfortable with that decision. He loves you very much, no matter what you do, say, or feel. And he always wants to know what's going on with you, and I don't feel comfortable keeping secrets from him.
"I'm going to tell him what we talked about. You don't have to talk to him about it, and he won't talk to you about it [MAKE SURE HE DOESN'T TALK TO HER ABOUT IT]. I just want him to know you had big feelings and were so brave in coming to tell me. And the next time you have a big feeling, you can come to me, and I'll tell Daddy later. How do you feel about that?"
Chances are she won't have as strong a reaction as you fear. And if she does freak out, you can have a family conversation about trust, and talk to your husband privately to try to figure out what's going on.
REMEMBER WHEN YOUR KID COULDN'T TALK AND ALL YOU HAD TO DO TO COMFORT HER WAS PICK HER UP? THOSE DAYS ARE LONG GONE AND SH*T JUST GETS MORE COMPLICATED FROM HERE. YOUR PARTNER IS YOUR BEST FRIEND IN THIS ALSO ME BUT I HAVE A FINANCIAL INTEREST. RULE NO. 1: NO SECRETS UNLESS IT'S A SURPRISE PARTY. YOU GOT THIS.
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