If they say "Don't tell Dad!", do you?
December 20, 2007 1:49 PM   Subscribe

How much do parents tell each other about the stories/secrets their children thell them?

Background first:

I'm a relatively new stepmom - sort of. Engaged and we moved in together early in the fall.

I've known the kids for two years. He only has them one weeknight and every other weekend; I've seen them most of those "one weeknights" for a year or two, as well as occasional weekends together, but we're finally under the same roof as of a few months ago.

The kids: a boy 14, a girl 12.

The girl in particular has really seemed to enjoy spending time with me, seeking me out when I'm in the kitchen cooking to talk about books she's reading, what dramas are going on at school, etc.

More and more, she's also confiding in me stuff that she doesn't want her dad to know - innocent stuff like boys she likes, the fact that she's wearing bras now, etc.

This is all new to me, since I have no kids of my own. What I'd like to know, from both "birth" parents and steps, if possible, is - when the kid confides something in you and says "Don't tell Dad", do you honor their request?

Assuming that it's not dangerous stuff like suicide thoughts, drug use, etc. her dad is 100% OK with me "keeping secrets" from him that his daugher has told me. But I feel very strange about it, knowing things about his daughter that he - her blood father - doesn't even know. Does that make me weird, or is this just a settling-in period and then I'll get used to it?

I'd love to hear how others have dealt with similar issues in their family.
posted by twiki to Human Relations (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say that in situations such as you've described, you definitely don't tell. At least, not until the statute of limitations has expired. And that varies with the item. I don't think you're weird to feel a little odd about it, but I think you should just feel a nice warm glow that you have been taken into their confidence. And do nothing to compromise that. (I am a birth parent of two.)
posted by bricoleur at 1:57 PM on December 20, 2007

I'm a stepdaughter, and I would have felt totally betrayed if I found out that my other mother was passing my confidences on to my dad.

Unless her safety or happiness is at stake, don't tell him. If she wants her dad to know that stuff, let her tell him herself.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:58 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

These little "secrets" are perfectly normal. Girls are more comfortable talking to their mothers about some things, and boys are more comfortable talking to their dads about some things.

The standard trick of switching roles would probably work well here. If you are uncertain if you should tell dad, just ask yourself if you would be upset if dad knew and kept it from you.
posted by indyz at 2:02 PM on December 20, 2007

otteroticist, thank you for giving me the daughter's perspective too. I definitely don't want her to feel betrayed - I'm very touched that she's trusted me with this information. I'm just uncomfortable, since this is so new, keeping secrets from her Dad about his own daughter.
posted by twiki at 2:02 PM on December 20, 2007

Our situation is a bit different, as we've explicitly told (and shown) the kiddos that Mom and Dad don't keep secrets from each other. Even in relatively trivial situations, it's been shown to be a Bad Idea to try to play us against each other.

That said, there's also the important concept of confidentiality that needs to be demonstrated, and not every little detail has a need to be shared, even between spouses. Some days a fine line, so welcome to the joys of parenting . My gut feeling is that Dad quite possibly knows the basics of what's going on without necessarily knowing every name or detail. [He also may not, but I find that I gave my parents less credit than I should have, just as my kids are figuring out slowly.]

Sometimes one of the kiddos will decide to share some details with me, and I'm just grateful that they do that. I count each one of those times a victory in parenting. It might be appropriate to inform the kiddo if something gets shared that you need to work on with Other Parent that you will be working together, for the benefit of all. That seems to work best if that warning comes early in the conversation, so kiddo can decide what to spill, or what to attempt to swear you to secrecy on, and you can then decide your course of action.

I think a lot of this is just the fact that we interact differently with different people, and that's okay. Trust and confidence is a wonderful thing. I'm a dad of five, but some days I still wonder if that makes me more or less of an expert on parenting stuff. Sigh.

posted by LoraxGuy at 2:07 PM on December 20, 2007

It depends on the secret and situation. Some are just minor, such as she's wearing bras now, but very, very important to the girl, so what the hell, sure. It's not like Dad wouldn't notice at some point.

Sometimes it's good to tell the Dad the secret on the condition that the dad not let on that he knows, but instead uses the info to relate to his daughter better. For instance, the girl might not want her dad to know she's getting her period, but the knowledge might have dad understand and deal with the daughter better is he knows she's adapting to getting her period.

It's it's really, really important or might have the family dynamic mention it in passing or some such, but always with the understanding the father must not let on that he knows. Otherwise they're perfectly norma.

I'm a stepdad.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:08 PM on December 20, 2007

Those are harmless secrets. Keep them and build trust.
posted by grumpy at 2:13 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I am going to second ottereroticist (and state that she has one awesome nickname there!) unless the kid is telling you things that could endanger her safety, do not tell dad. If it is something that you don't feel comfortable keeping a secret, tell her that and encourage her to tell dad herself. Let her know that you'll support her if she feels nervous about telling dad.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:13 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by jeffamaphone at 2:19 PM on December 20, 2007

Sounds like most of this stuff is "woman stuff" so it makes sense to me she doesn't want Dad knowing about bras and such. Just enjoy the female bonding, for that is what's going on. And congrats for being the kind of stepmom she feels comfortable yakking with!
posted by konolia at 2:20 PM on December 20, 2007

My stepmother was one of my biggest sources of support when I was an awkward teenager and didn't get along terribly well with either of my biological parents. I think it was probably because I didn't have to see her as a "parent" figure, exactly, so I could talk with her in a way that I couldn't talk to my parents. I am endlessly thankful that I had a woman in my life that I could talk to about girl stuff when I was growing up, and it sounds like you're that woman for this girl. Don't betray her trust now — she'll need you in the coming years.
posted by adiabat at 2:26 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

If she's talking about something major, like getting pregnant, then I'd be inclined to discuss either her telling her dad, or you telling her dad. But anything else, I think you have to ask yourself if telling her dad is worth the negative feelings she's going to have for you afterwards.

I am not a parent, nor am I a step child.
posted by Solomon at 2:27 PM on December 20, 2007

I think Brandon Blatcher makes a GREAT point about how certain information, understandably private between the ladies of the house, might nevertheless help Dad relate in a way that will avoid unnecessary strain in the relationship and interpersonal problems. I can think of a few similar examples, but his is the best.
posted by bunnycup at 2:30 PM on December 20, 2007

This is all new to me, since I have no kids of my own.

Well, really, now you do. You need to start thinking of them that way--it's okay if they don't feel comfortable calling you Mom and if you call them your step-kids, etc. but if they ever hear you say, "Oh, I don't have kids of my own..." that could be a heart-breaker.

Don't tell Dad, unless it is something you feel it is vital that he knows, and then, as Pollomacho says, encourage her to let her father in on the secret. You may feel weird, but it sounds like Dad has a good head on his shoulders and isn't bothered by this, and I think it is great that she has a confidant in you. Good for you!
posted by misha at 2:36 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think that daughters, when they're coming into womanhood, need to have an absolute sense that their mother-figure (particularly when made to promise "Don't tell Dad") will keep things to herself. I think girls have a right to that, frankly.

There's a reason she's not telling her dad about wearing a bra, and it has nothing to do with not liking him. She's seeking you out to talk about this stuff because she needs and wants female insight and guidance. She's still feeling out what it is to be a woman, you know? A lot of it seems mysterious and kind of scary at first, and incredibly personal and embarrassing. It's already tough to talk about it with Mom. You absolutely don't want to have some horrible conversation where Dad is all "So... my little girl is growing up, eh?"

Plus, a lot of fathers get (understandably) quite nervous about their little girls becoming sexual creatures, and the daughters feel that nervousness. This is all normal and healthy, but there are really good reasons why daughters talk to their moms about their boobs and not their dads.

If something is really important, like she got her period recently, what my mom did was ask if she could tell my dad, and then explain why it was important for him to know, and if we could agree that my father would be instructed that under no circumstances was he to start awkward conversations about Tampax with me, I would consent that it was okay for him to be informed.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:41 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

As a parent of a 13 year old girl, I assume that my wife is told certain things that are not told directly to me. The example above about the menstruation was a real life example in my house. My wife did tell me because it cleared up so much and because I think my daughter had no problem with me knowing eventually, but she just could not tell me herself. I do agree that a confidence should be kept and trust established that they will be kept.

I have had my sons tell me things in confidence that I have not told my wife, but I have encouraged them to tell their mom directly. "This is very important and your mom should know. I will not tell her if you don't want, but I suggest you tell her yourself or we can tell her together."

Recently, my father told me something about something I had told my stepmother in confidence years ago. It really bothered me and I lost some respect for my stepmother because of it. To me a secret is a secret.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:48 PM on December 20, 2007

From context, she's not confiding in you as a "mother", she's confiding in you as a friend.

That's a great thing. Not only should you respect that context and use it to build trust, you should be delighted she accepts you so easily.

At 12, and in our accelerated culture, she's also nearly an adult anyway, so treating her with peerlike respect seems correct anyway.
posted by rokusan at 2:54 PM on December 20, 2007

Agreed that you're best off not telling most of the time. I remember the feeling of betrayal when I realized my mom had told my dad and my grandmothers about things (bras, getting my period, etc.) that I'd asked her not to tell anyone else. You've earned her trust, which is fantastic, and it is best not to break it. The suggestion to ask if you can tell her dad certain things is a good one.
posted by bassjump at 3:32 PM on December 20, 2007

you must be doing something right if she's confiding in you! i would keep any secrets that don't require parental intervention. this is a great time for you to build trust with her, because when she's 16, you'll have a lot more leverage with her.

unless something really bad is going on, i wouldn't tell her dad. and if something really bad is going on, you might want to help her get to where -she- can tell him, like promising to be with her when she does tell him, or to be the one to tell him but in a controlled way, with her in the room.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:36 PM on December 20, 2007

My wonderful and talented daughters (in case they haven't finished xmas shopping) and I always have had (and still do have) our little secrets from Mom. To the point now where the secretness doesn't even have to be defined but it's all little, trivial stuff that Mom wouldn't like or appreicate. But we do.

I would say if you learn anything that you think you'll need to tell then say so. "You know, I think your father needs to know about this. I know it's embarrassing but he should be told. Do you want to tell him or should I?"

That way there isn't any risk of betrayal.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:52 PM on December 20, 2007

I think your stepdaughter sees you as the right amount of "friend", "adult" and "parent", which means you are a bit of everything but no 100% of any. Like thinkingwoman says, you must be doing something right if she's confiding in you, so don't do anything that will break that trust she has in you. (Of course, as long as it doesn't put her life/integrity in danger.)

I'm going to be a high school teacher next year, so I've been to a bunch of courses on how to be a tutor and how to deal with teenagers who confide in teachers, and the one true law there is that we should NEVER tell the parents anything that the kid tells us in confidence. (The same rule applies here that we can break the confidence and tell the parents if the secret would put anyone in danger, or if we need to contact the school's psychologist, etc.)

I'm thinking that it would be ok though, if for some things you ask your stepdaughter if she gives you permission to tell her dad about some things. But only go and tell him if she says yes...and don't be pushy about it.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:05 PM on December 20, 2007

It's awesome that she's trusting you with girltalk, and it gives you an opportunity to build a relationship with her. I wouldn't necessarily put this stuff in the category of "keeping secrets." And if she wasn't telling you, she wouldn't be telling her Dad anyway.

Also, she's testing you a bit. Remember that you're going to have to play the Mom Card at some point, and she's going to play the "OMG how could you I thought you were my friend!" card right back. This shouldn't inhibit your enjoyment of your budding relationship, just...well...remember being a teenage girl? Ack.

"You know, I think your father needs to know about this. I know it's embarrassing but he should be told. Do you want to tell him or should I?"

A good approach for when she does tell you something more serious.
posted by desuetude at 4:29 PM on December 20, 2007

Your stepdaughter is telling you these secrets in order to bond with you, because you two didn't grow up together and you're going to be a parent to her now. These secrets do not sound like important information that must stay hidden, they only are important because they are shared, and signify something between a stepmom and stepdaughter.

The only reason to share these secrets is to reject your stepdaughter.

I think you feel "weird" about this precisely because you're trusted in a way that is new to you, that these increasing steps actually do have meaning, and that she is becoming more of your daughter. This is a good thing. It's weird because it's new, not because it's wrong.
posted by cotterpin at 4:34 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am the father in your situation. I would expect not to hear these secrets unless there is something that would demand my intervention, but I'd be tickled to know on a general, vague level that she is confiding in you.

There are all kinds of things that a young woman doesn't want to talk to her dad about, and it's great that she can talk to you - but she won't if it turns out that you blab.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:39 PM on December 20, 2007

also, i think it feels weird because you're developing a relationship with her independent of your relationship with him.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:59 PM on December 20, 2007

Secrets are currency to 12-year-old kids. They trade a lot of secrets among themselves. Confiding secrets is how she's testing you, just like she would a new person in her peer group. She might like it if you told her a few secrets -- just little stuff, nothing onerous or weird.
posted by debgpi at 7:12 PM on December 20, 2007

When I was that age and somewhat younger, none of my secrets were dangerous or truly Important in the practical sense. But I permanently lost a large amount of trust in the adults who I told my secrets to other adults. This included my otherwise-sweet maternal grandmother.

It's true that secrets are currency amongst children. When you needlessly break their trust, they'll know you see their thoughts, feelings, and secrets as inconsequential and unimportant. They may feel devalued or humiliated that their personal issues are treated with so little respect. And it will seem like a huge deal to them, no matter what the secret is.

So, please keep her secrets. You're filling an important slot in her life. I had no one like you when I was small, and definitely suffered for it.
posted by Coatlicue at 7:34 AM on December 21, 2007

This actually works out well for all parties involved. There are certain things that the girl needs someone to talk to about, and it's far better that she would be able to trust you for help, advice, and a sounding board than to have to try to find that outside the house. So that's good for her.

There are certain things that she just would really rather not have to talk to Dad about. She can talk to you instead. That's good for her.

There are also certain things that Dad doesn't want to have to deal with. Not because he can't be bothered, but because these are things that are either uncomfortable or that he has no idea how to deal with. He doesn't have to try to find a way to deal with these things and he doesn't have to either give her advice that may be awkward. So that's good for him.

Last, this helps you bond with the girl. Once you marry him, his kids are your kids, so if there's a comfort level in place, it can only make things better. That's good for you. And good for everyone involved.
posted by azpenguin at 7:38 AM on December 21, 2007

Thanks to EVERYONE for their advice, patience, and anecdotes. Being a brand-new stepmom can be bewildering at times - particularly when getting teenagers "fully formed" without the training wheels of the last twelve-fourteen years. :)

I will be taking everyone's - including my husband-to-be's - advice and keeping the counsel of this new little lady in my life, and being grateful that she talks to me and confides in me.

I just want to do the best job I can - for those kids, for myself, and for my hubby-to-be.

posted by twiki at 10:58 AM on December 21, 2007

If she knows she can trust you with the very-important-to-her-but-harmless secrets now, then you will be the person she calls in a few years when something serious happens and she needs an adult. Whatever the 'something serious' is, you will probably need to tell dad afterwards (preferably with her consent), but the trust you are building now could save her life/ health/ opportunities/ sanity someday. Treasure it.
posted by happyturtle at 4:58 PM on December 21, 2007

There are phases in every child's life where they will associate with either parent better. From ages 2-8, most girls take a liking to their mom more and play with babies, kitchenettes, and dolls and are not as close to their dads. I believe this phase repeats itself during the preteen years and you are coming into their lives at that moment. I am a stepmom in the legal sense, but I have been in my daughter's life since she was in diapers and while that puts me in a bit of a stronger presence than you are currently in now, keep in mind WHAT she shares with you.

If her secrets violate disciplinary rules, you must share with her father first and foremost. Do not ever do the one warning rule from you and then you give her a chance, then perhaps something goes awry and then her father finds out. You do not want to put yourself in that situation. If it is just secrets about boys and if any are innocently paying attention to her, you should be fine with your girl talk. However, watch the advice you give! Your fiancee should have shared with you their rules on dating and curfew and friends, so you should have a clear idea of house rules. Never forget that, albeit you are a stepmom, you still have a parental role. While most stepparents do not mind taking the back seat and letting the biological parents take the reins, you have an obligation to your fiancee first and foremost in helping him with his responsibility over his kids over being their friend.
posted by dnthomps at 11:53 PM on December 21, 2007

As a stepchild, I would expect my step-mother and father to share absolutely everything and have no secrets, but I would generally not expect the non-confided one to talk to me about it unless I raised it with them first.
posted by idb at 8:44 AM on December 23, 2007

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