This got me thinking, yet again, about the difference between secrets, surprises and confidences. Talking about it with one of the newer parents, we arrived at some great definitions for use especially with kids, though they are by no means unique:
Secrets: "covering up wrongdoing." Asking kids to keep a secret is pretty dangerous stuff. It's what abusers do to their young victims ("this is just our little secret), it's what corrupt bosses do to their employees ("we'll pay you under the table and keep your employment a secret from the government), and it's what people generally do when they know they're doing something wrong - covering it up. Secrets, we need to teach our children, are bad.
Surprises: "withholding information to create a pleasant surprise in the near future." This is what we did with Intern. We withheld a lot of information so that she could have a happy surprise party in her honor. I knew she would have been embarrassed to have known about it in advance, but this way, we got to celebrate her pregnancy and the impending birth of her child, and she got to enjoy the generosity of our congregation's love. A surprise is a special kind of secret - one that is meant to be revealed at the right time, for a positive end. These are okay to keep - and our kids did a fantastic job keeping this surprise!!!
Confidences: "not sharing information to third parties." As a pastor, I'm put in the position to keep all kinds of confidences. About surgeries, illnesses, indiscretions, marriages in crisis, pregnancies of all sorts, and so on. Part of my vows mean that I don't get to share this information with people, even when I want to or it might make a difference in how another person might treat a certain situation. I keep a lot of confidences in my professional capacity.
For a lot of lay people, you too keep confidences, even if you don't have "vows" you promised to the church to keep. Things your friends tell you that they don't want the world to know, vulnerable places in their life or psyche, or just plain embarrassing stories. Trust is a really important part of friendships, and knowing that you aren't going to tell everyone everything is a good way to be a good friend to someone.
Confidences are meant to be kept, often indefinitely, and I hold them in the highest regard. That being said, I have been in a couple of situations where I have needed to break a confidence. I did so with the full knowledge of the person who had revealed the confidence to me. In one case, it was a case of abuse reported to me which by the law of the state I lived in at the time, I had to report to the authorities, and in another, it was revealing to camp leadership staff a report about something a camper had experienced "down the hill" (not at camp) that was affecting her experience of camp. (In a few other cases, the person has told me, "It's okay to tell your spouse," and then I use my best judgment as to whether or not Backbencher needs to know the information.) When I have had to break a confidence, I have told the person involved that I needed to do that and why beforehand. It saves a lot of drama and preserves one's ability to be trustworthy in future situations.
When someone asks me if I can keep a secret, I always reply, "It depends." If someone wants me to keep something confidential, I can do that. If someone wants to plan I surprise, I can definitely do that! If someone just needs to get something off their chest in a non-confessional capacity, I can probably do that. But if someone wants to tell me that they are hurting someone or being hurt by someone, that's not the kind of secret I can necessarily keep.*
In my work with young people in particular, if I'm asked to keep a secret, I say, "I want to keep things confidential - that is, not blabbing information around. But if you are being hurt by someone, or if you are hurting someone or yourself, that isn't the kind of secret I can keep. In that case, I need to tell other people so that you can get the help you need. Because I care about you, sometimes I have to tell someone else." No person, having heard my criteria for keeping a confidence, has ever chosen not to tell me the situation.
I encourage you all to work to adopt these definitions for use in your personal and professional lives - especially if you work with young people. J. came up with the "secrets" definition, and I give him full credit for the wording.
*By virtue of my ordination vows, I must keep confidential anything said to me in a confessional/penitential setting, even if it involves someone abusing another. It's a specific context, and in our denomination, "confession" isn't as commonly used as it is in other religious traditions. But it still exists. In Iowa, as clergy I am not a mandated reporter (though that may change this year), but in my sex educator capacity, I am mandated reporter. So, for me personally, a lot depends on my professional context. Also, if my friends want to know that I will keep something silent, it goes "in the vault," where I don't reveal the information to anyone ... sometimes even myself, forgetting about the information! (I did this when my friend Emily had a crush on Tim, and then couldn't figure out who she had started dating....Kids, it's not a secret anymore as they've been married a few years!)