I’m intimidated by this post’s topic. I know it has to be addressed and I have no good answers.
If the child is in imminent danger, you get him or her out of harm’s way, and if the relationship is one-on-one, I’d be inclined to act decisively, even if the particular situation seems relatively benign. Even if what the child has been told not to tell you is trivial and harmless, the injunction is not because it shows poor judgment on the adult’s part and implicitly undermines the security children should feel in their ability to always tell their parents what troubles them. Moreover, the adult could well be testing the child’s ability to keep secrets, and next time, the secret might be a sinister one.
The more problematic situations, I believe, involve classrooms and sports teams.
I made a point of telling my children that I would always be on their side. I may shout and criticise, but I’m theirs, against the others. And these days I ask what I’m allowed to say to whom, so that I’m supportive but don’t make it worse.
I’ll say it again: what makes “Don’t tell your parents” so sinister is that even if the occasion is trivial, the command undermines the child’s ability to entrust her parents with her concerns. If she then pleads that they not contact the forbidder, and the parents do so anyway, her trust is undermined as well, and the bully scores a double hit.
But this doesn’t mean doing nothing is the only option. I’d want to know if this incident were an isolated one or part of a pattern. If it is an isolated one, depending on its nature and the child’s distress, I might adopt a wait and see stance, telling my child to let me know if it happens again.
It may be possible in some cases, perhaps with a verbally abusive or unjust forbidder, to get the child to see that such people do not improve on their own, that no one has the right to abuse his position of power over another, that people who do abuse their power shouldn’t be allowed to work with children, that their bosses should know what is going on, and that we could try to talk with the forbidder, making quite clear to him that he best not even think about exacting revenge, but finally she would be better off in another classroom, on another team, whatever.
Three times I changed schools to get my kids away from teachers/coaches who abused their power. In the first case, my son was never in trouble with his teacher but was so distressed by the way she carried on towards other children that he was miserable. When I told him we had other choices, that there were other schools he could go to, he wanted to leave. The principal and others just didn’t get it: why would a second grader who made all A’s and never got in trouble want to change schools?
Question: why do adults assume children have no empathy for other kids?
The second time, again, my child had no particular conflict with a bully authority figure, but I had stood up to him when I saw how he treated kids in general and was promptly banned from his school’s campus. I didn’t pull my son out immediately, but I advised him to watch very carefully how this guy behaved. By the end of the year Son was ready to leave.
The third time my daughter pleaded to be moved.
In each case, it was the right thing to do.
I’ll tell you what I learned along the way:
1. Don’t count on the forbidder’s boss’s help. Sometimes they don’t care but always they are in the position of having to balance three loyalties: to parents (low), to child, to employee. As parents we know what should be their highest priority, but…
2. Don’t count on the help or support of other parents. In the second of my three experiences, I had listened to parent after parent complain about this coach/teacher — to each other. Much whining and gnashing of teeth — in the parking lot, well away from the problem. I tried to get these people to join me and together sign a letter outlining our concerns. Guess how many were willing to do that. None, nada, zilch, zero. But as time passed, I watched as kid after kid transferred out.
In an ideal world…
1. There would be a change of consciousness. There would be a prohibition, zero tolerance, by administrators of teachers or coaches who said “Don’t tell your parents.”
2. In the meantime, I’d like to see realtime webcam or CCTV in every classroom and playing field available for download or streaming and archived for a month at least. It would be essential that any parent could see it without asking the school for the tapes or files. Let’s see what they don’t want us to know about. And then there would be no point in forbidding kids to tell their parents about something they can see for themselves: at least we’d achieve an end to the nasty undermining of kids’ security in knowing they can always confide their troubles to their parents.
This isn’t Big Brother-dom; this is ensuring the rights of the powerless. Is it Big Brother-dom to videotape interrogations of suspects? I don’t think so, and every child has fewer rights than any criminal suspect, if we are honest. Children have fewer rights than convicts in many US states. Wardens the same size as their prisoners can’t beat miscreants with boards. Adults, 3, 4, 5, 6, you name it times the size of a boy or girl who misbehaves in school can hit these kids. Something is so wrong here.
In the real world:
What would you do? What has worked for you?