If you’ve just spend the holidays with a house full of company or crammed into an airport waiting area, privacy probably seemed like a distant fantasy. If you managed to surprise someone with the gift of their dreams, keeping secrets may seem like a great idea. There’s a time and place for both secrecy and privacy. Understanding and incorporating the concepts into your family life can promote sexual health and safety, and strengthen the overall quality of the relationships between the family members.
Secrecy is a straightforward concept; a person knows something and keeps it to himself. Privacy is more nuanced; one person knows something, and others may know it too, but the others don’t observe or witness it.
As part of healthy development, kids should be taught that they can earn the privilege of privacy but that secrets from parents are unacceptable. Promoting sexual health and safety is easier when a family has a norm that includes treating all part of the body equally. Children who are unable to discuss their genitalia with their parents may be even more susceptible to the request of a predator to keep their ‘special games’ a secret. A child should learn that their body is private, but there is never any shame or secrecy associated with any part.
It’s a great idea for the adults in a family to have a discussion on what will be private — for example, discussions about finances, or parents’ arguments the children might overhear. By the time a child gets close to elementary school age, they should start to be able to understand this nuance, but younger kids understand absolutes: no secrets from Mom or Dad.
As a child matures, they can start to earn some privacy. Going to the bathroom is a good topic to illustrate the difference between privacy and secrecy. A parent might explain: “When you’re big enough to reach the toilet, when I trust that you will be sure wipe yourself when you’re done, you can earn the right to have privacy in the bathroom – you’ll be able to go by yourself and eventually shut the door. But, Mommy or Daddy will know that you’re there, we’ll know what you’re doing so it won’t be a secret. And if anything is wrong – if your pee is a funny color or it hurts when you poop, you know you can tell us.” Privacy means you get to do it by yourself, but we just don’t ever keep secrets from each other.
In a healthy family, parents need and deserve privacy. It is to be assumed that older kids will rifle through parents’ drawers and closets given the opportunity. Assume that your child will do this and take precautions: Put your personal things away and lock up anything you don’t want them to find. Of course parents have the right to have adult items in the house—they are after all adults. But, children do not want to be confronted with the fact that their parents are sexually active, so put away the special books, toys, creams, prescriptions, lingerie, etc.! If a child finds a locked drawer or box, let him wonder about the contents; if parents find evidence that a child has been exploring the parents’ possessions, take the opportunity to discuss the difference between privacy and secrecy. It’s no secret that grown-ups are sexual but how they express it is completely private from their kids.
Parents can set a foundation for privacy early in the life of their family, making it clear to their kids how they can earn more privacy as they mature. At the same time, be clear that open lines of communication mean that parents and children can and will talk about anything, and no secrets from Mom and Dad.