This seems like a small incident in some ways – calling my child a “stupid rat”? Not cool. But I acknowledge he was probably half-asleep, was angry and, regretted saying it. But what happened after, I feel, is very questionable. An adult must not ask a child to keep a secret and threaten that, if he or she tells, something bad might happen or, conversely, reward a child for keeping the secret. I am not suggesting that John’s behavior would escalate into any form of sexual abuse, but I am concerned about the messages his behavior sends to our daughter. Let’s say, and only by way of example, it WAS sexual. Let’s say he does something to her. And then, in defense, John frames the event differently – it wasn’t quite what she thought, it was something else that made it okay. And then he asks she not tell Mum and Dad in exchange for a toy. And finally, when she comes home to us, we praise John: “How nice of him to buy you a toy! What a kind grandfather!”
To me, the series of events – the incident, the manipulation of truth, the brushing it off as not a big deal, the conspiracy, bribery, and secrecy – is just the sort of manipulation that someone who WAS a sexual predator would undertake. What John could have done is apologize for getting angry and calling her a name. He could explain that, because she woke him up on purpose, that made him grumpy and that he was sorry because he knows he shouldn’t say mean things. And that he could tell mum and dad what happened so that they know that you were upset and cried.
My husband and I discussed whether we should to talk to my mother and John about the incident. It’s tricky – is it small enough of an incident to not warrant causing stress within the extended family? My husband leans more to letting it go, saying it may make things tense if we bring it up, but using it as an opportunity to stress to our daughter if an adult asks her to keep a secret, she must tell us. I kind of agree but argue that little kids shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of responsibility – to decide whether they should tell a secret or not. If it were a stranger asking our child to keep a secret we would consider that unacceptable but, when it’s family, it’s a bit of a grey area?? And aren’t the people closest to our children the ones who are more likely to abuse them?
I guess I’m interested in your thoughts rather than having a specific question. What expectations should we have of the adults in our children’s lives? How do we let those adults know our expectations? DO we let those adults know? What would your reaction be if this were your child?
If our 8-year-old daughter hadn’t shared what happened, then she would have been left with a memory that made her upset, with some confusion around what actually happened, a secret to keep, and parents who, on her return, praised John for being kind and generous. Substitute the name calling with sexual abuse and my blood runs cold. — No Secrets With the Kids
I get where you’re coming from, I really do. But I also think you’re over-reacting a bit, and I suspect it’s in your nature to over-react and over-think things a bit (as an example, this is a condensed version of your letter), which is why your stepfather was probably extra worried about your catching wind of his sudden outburst at your daughter and why your husband is hesitant to speak to him and your mother about your concerns regarding the incident. Furthermore, the leap you’re making from what happened to potential sexual abuse seems far-fetched if you trust your stepfather and have no reason to suspect him of such horrible behavior (and I have to assume you don’t or you wouldn’t leave your young daughter in his care!).
I see these series of events — “the incident, the manipulation of truth, the brushing it off as not a big deal, the conspiracy, bribery, and secrecy” — as an opportunity for a very important lesson for your young daughter. But it’s up to you what the lesson will be. You could confront your stepfather and mother and they could get defensive in return. There could be, as your husband is especially concerned about, tension among all of you as a result of your confronting them. That tension may very well affect your daughter’s relationship with her grandparents. Will they still want to babysit her? Maybe not. Will your stepdad still welcome her as warmly in his home, knowing she “told on him”? Maybe not. And then what message would that send to your daughter? That when she shares secrets adults have told her to keep, the adults get angry and relationships strain?
On the other hand, you could tell your daughter how proud you are of her for trusting you and for doing the right thing, which is to tell you when an adult asks her to keep a secret. You could confirm and validate that her grandfather isn’t in trouble — that her sharing his secret isn’t getting him in trouble. But since he failed to handle the incident the right way, which would have been, as you acknowledge, to explain that, because she woke him up on purpose, it made him grumpy and that he was sorry for calling her a name as a result, you have to deliver that message for him. Explain to your daughter that adults sometimes make mistakes — even her grandfather, even you — and that it doesn’t mean they love her any less. And then you can ask her how the whole thing made her feel and talk about that a bit. Give her an opportunity to share any concerns she has. Keep the dialogue open rather than shutting it down by sending the message that sharing secrets makes everyone upset and angry and potentially changes relationships.
Finally, it’s too late to protect your daughter from the responsibility of deciding whether or not to share a secret. It already happened. And she chose correctly. You can’t control anyone else. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts to keep her safe, your daughter may be faced again with a similar decision — and next time it could involve someone whose intentions are far less pure. Do you really want her second-guessing a decision to share a secret with you because she remembered when she shared a secret before and everyone got upset and hurt and angry?
There are times to get upset and hurt and angry, and I don’t think this is one of them. You’ve got to pick your battles in life, and especially in interpersonal relationships, and I’m afraid that, if this is one you pick, you may lose a more important one in the future (or not have a chance of fighting it at all).
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.