When I was in elementary school, one of my friends told me about how her neighbor boy had forced her and her little sister to take their clothes off at knife-point. The boy had told them that if they told their parents, he would kill them. Years later I realized that the reason she had told me about it was so that I could tell someone. I think she wanted me to tell my mom, so that my mom could talk to her mom and something could be done to protect her from this predatory boy. Unfortunately, she didn’t know that I couldn’t tell my mother something like that. When I was a child and told my mother something, her immediate response, no matter what, was to call me a liar. It didn’t matter what it was. I could tell her it was raining outside and she would dismiss it as ‘another one of [my] stories.’ Because of that I never had the confidence that she would listen to me, and I couldn’t approach her with such a serious issue.
As a freshman in high school, a friend of mine brought one of her friends to talk to me, telling her not to worry, that Melinda will know what to do. That friend-of-a-friend told me that her step-father had been raping her. I asked her if she had told her mother about it. She had, and her mother accused her of lying. She was looking for help, and I couldn’t give it, because if her own mother wouldn’t believe her, I didn’t know who to send her to. I know now that I should have told a teacher, or encouraged her to do so, but I didn’t because I didn’t know what teachers would listen. And again, I couldn’t go to my own parents for help.
As a senior in high school, a freshman girl told a friend and I that she was going to kill herself. At that time I knew a little bit about suicide prevention, and I knew to ask her questions like did she have a plan (yes, to shoot herself), and did she have a weapon (yes, she had acquired a gun, I believe it belonged to a parent). This time, I knew I had to do something – there was a life at stake. My male friend and I decided the best thing to do would be to speak to the high school guidance counselors at lunch. We figured we would hand the burden over to them and they would take care of it. When he and I approached the lunch monitor and told him we needed to see the guidance counselor, the lunch monitored smirked at us, but let us go. When we went to the guidance office we were again smirked at by the secretary, and, when we met with a counselor, she was all prepared with information for us on teen pregnancy. Yes, that’s right, everyone assumed the reason we needed to see a guidance counselor together was clearly that my friend had knocked me up. And those smirky self-righteous grown-ups were the people we were supposed to confide in. Fortunately we did talk to the counselor about the actual reason we were there, and the freshman did not kill herself (though she did confront us later and yell at us for getting the gun taken away).
I don’t want my children or their friends to have those kinds of experiences. Wildling and I have discussed it before, and she knows what to do if someone tells her what we call ‘a bad secret.’ She knows that she should agree to keep it a secret and then tell me right away. If someone threatens her and says that they’ll hurt her if she tells on them, she knows to promise that she won’t tell and then tell me so I can protect and help her. I talk to her about this now (without gory details of what those bad secrets could be) so that I can cement the idea in her head now, while she’s young and impressionable and still likes me, that her mama will be able to help.
I’m not speaking just for myself but for all parents out there: if we want to protect our children, we have to give them the confidence that we are willing and able to do so. If we react by calling our children liars when they tell us something, they won’t trust us. If we tell them that secrets are meant to be kept, they won’t know that they should share the bad ones. This is the kind of thing that they need to learn when they are young, so that when they are older and the real bad stuff starts, they already have a foundation of confidence and trust.
I want to be the trusted grown-up. I want to be the one that they come to when bad things happen, and I want them to have the confidence to know that I won’t dismiss them as liars and that I will help them.