Monday, March 9, 2015

Some secrets you don’t keep

I walked home with our twin fifth grade daughters listening to stories about math class and icky boys and library events. It all seemed quite ordinary, which is why I was surprised to receive a message from Mrs. H, another fifth grade mom, asking if I heard what happened at school that day.

It was too late to ask our girls, so we talked about it at breakfast the next morning. The blond twin said she and Mrs. H’s daughter had a disagreement, so she thought the other girl was mad at her. I told her that fifth grade girls were always getting into disagreements and making up so I was pretty sure that Mrs. H wasn’t calling about that. We walked to school and I didn’t think about it anymore.
When Mrs. H called, she said her daughter didn’t give her all the details, but here’s what she knew. A student in our girls’ class went to the health aid the day before because her arm was bleeding through her shirt. She came back with a bright pink bandage covering her arm from elbow to wrist.

The story Mrs. H heard from her daughter was that the girl told our blond twin that she was cutting her arm because she was upset. There was a fifth grade boy she liked who didn’t like her back. The blond twin asked her if it hurt. The girl said no. The blond twin told her not to do it again because she might really hurt herself. I explained that our daughter never said anything about it to me when I asked. I told Mrs. H that our daughter probably didn’t know what “cutting” meant since I didn’t know that I’ve ever talked to our girls about it.
I spent the rest of the day with a sick feeling washing over me in waves.  I realized that young girls faced serious issues at younger and younger ages. Still, knowing that a fifth grade girl was cutting herself because a boy didn’t like her really unnerved me.

If anyone had been in our house that day, they would have worried about my mental health. I kept rehearsing what I wanted to say to our girls. Sometimes I just did it in my head. Sometimes I spoke out loud to our dog. I wanted to make sure I said the right thing so our girls understood how important it was to talk to us about cutting and what it meant when someone started cutting herself.  I was about an hour away from meeting our girls to walk home from school when I hit upon my key message.
There were some secrets it was important not to keep. If a friend told you that she thinks a boy is cute, you keep that secret. If someone told you that her feelings were hurt that you were invited to a party and she didn’t get an invite, you keep that secret.

Anytime someone told you something that involved hurting him/herself or others you had to tell a grown-up as soon as possible. You were not breaking a confidence by sharing secrets involving activities that could end up with your friend or someone else hurt. The secret might be about someone cutting herself, like their school friend. As they grew up the secrets might be about more dangerous activities. I gave the example of friends using drugs at a high school party. We talked about how dangerous it was for their friends to talk to strangers on the internet. We often talked about how dangerous it was for our girls to interact with strangers on social media or gaming sites. I expanded that conversation to include their girlfriends talking to older men via those same channels.

I explained that it wasn’t breaking a confidence when someone was doing something that might be dangerous. It was important for us all to look out for each other and try to keep each other safe. Once they gave an adult the information, it was up to the adult to act. Their only job was to make sure we had the information to process.
Our girls seemed to understand the distinction. They talked about secrets to keep and secrets to tell Mommy or Daddy immediately.  We talked about other people they might tell. The girls gave examples of when they might have to tell those people something rather than wait to tell Mommy or Daddy.

When we arrived home they went through their usual routine like nothing changed. I knew that everything changed, though, and not for the better.

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