Why do kids comply when an authority commands, “Don’t tell your parents”? Simple obedience? I don’t think so.
I think generally they keep silent out of fear: fear of what their parents will do and, in turn, fear of retribution from the forbidder.
There are other reasons of course.
Mixed loyalties might be involved in some cases: the child likes the forbidder and doesn’t want him to get in trouble. Say the forbidder is a teacher who has gotten a hot new sports car. He invites some of the girls to take a spin during their lunch period. No real harm is done, as far as the girls can see, but they know their parents wouldn’t understand that their teacher is just a fun guy.
Or perhaps the injunction is a relief to the child. I imagine this might be why some of the Duke lacrosse players went along with the dean’s and in turn their coach’s instructions not to call home. After all, what kid wants to tell mom and dad he was at a party with a stripper who claims several of his teammates raped her? Even if they suspect sooner or later the story is bound to come out, later feels better, and in the meantime they can hope that somehow the Duke administration can fix the problem and make it go away. In group situations like these there is also the peer reaction to consider, especially if parents know one another.
But then there are cases where the command is accompanied by a threat –sometimes explicit (remember the shaving episode teacher who threatened his class that those who told their parents couldn’t attend the Christmas party) and sometimes not.
Maybe no punishment is threatened, but from past experience the kid knows that sooner or later, the forbidder will get back at him, should the kid’s parents complain. I once asked a class who felt they were being unjustly harshly punished for minor infractions why none of them complained to their parents. Silence. Finally, one boy said several months back he told his mom about something similar that the same teacher had done, and she came in to talk to the teacher, and afterwards things weren’t better for him, they were worse. The rest of the class nodded their understanding and agreement. I too knew he was telling me the truth, and I was helpless to tell him that this time — or the next, or the next– things would go differently.
I suspect that most of the time when kids don’t tell this is the reason why — and it is a good reason.
So how do parents find out?
On the rarest occasions, they hear it said. I knew a woman who worked part-time at her daughters’ school. She was out of sight but within earshot when a teacher told his class not to tell their parents about something — I can’t remember now what it was. The mother told me that she later got right in that teacher’s face and told him never, and she meant never, tell her girls to keep something from her. Within a month she had left the job and the girls the school.
They find out from another parent. It may be that their child’s classmate told her folks what was going on. Or sometimes the incident that isn’t to be mentioned only involves one or a few students but their friends know all about it. These kids may not have been forbidden to talk, and since they don’t think their parents will get involved, they don’t fear retribution. And I imagine that once again in many cases they are right. You can imagine the rationalizations. If it is someone else’s kid’s problem, why should they care? Why run the risk their own kid will incur the bully’s wrath by saying anything to anyone?
Finally, the child may tell. The parent who is paying attention usually can tell when something is wrong and can get the child to talk — eventually. And a few may tell because he’s been hearing all his life that no adult should ever say to him, “Don’t tell your parents” and he trusts that his parents will figure a way to keep him safe from the forbidder’s revenge.