In chapter two of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Our Gang’s Dark Oath,” seven boys unhitch a skiff — that I’m sure did not belong to them — and “pulled down the river two mile and a half, to a big scar on the hillside and went ashore.” Led by Tom Sawyer, they clamber through the underbrush and into a small cave where, with their faces lit by candlelight, they agree to join Tom Sawyer’s Gang — a self-declared band of dangerous robbers — and swear an oath of secrecy. As Mark Twain puts it:
Everybody was willing. So Tom got out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn’t eat and he mustn’t sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band...And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off of the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever.
In a contemporary setting, if, say, one of the boys had broken the oath, recorded the gathering, and posted it on Facebook, Tom Sawyer and his gang would be in a heap of trouble. But the truth about this secret gathering is that the boys weren’t actually committing to a life of robbery; they were committing to each other, to the exhilaration of a private moment — in the book, there is no evidence that the gang ever meets again — and to a fantasy of imagining themselves valiant adventurers.
Parental anxiety runs high these days, especially in light of the abuse of children by adults. Secrecy may seem an old-fashioned luxury in a world where a football coach, boy scout troop leader, or priest might ask your child “not to tell.” Parents want transparency, to have access to knowledge of everything that happens when their children are not on their watch. And independent schools, for the most part, are willing to oblige them with rapid response emails or phone calls about playground scrapes and classroom conflicts, and through Web portals, like the poetically named Illuminate, that give parents up-to-the-minute access to details of their child’s day.
But a certain level of secrecy — what I’ll call joyful secrecy, as opposed to shameful or scared secrecy — is an essential part of growing up. Even in our nervous world, healthy child development still requires it.
Joyful secrecy doesn’t hurt anyone. Like surprise parties, or the hidden methods of a magic trick, it leads to happy outcomes. As children move out into the wider world, temporary tribes with secret dares and oaths help them feel both bold and protected. Children who banter with each other, who negotiate an ever-changing set of rules for made-up games are exploring the pivotal stage of child development that Harry Stack Sullivan, the great theorist of interpersonal relations, calls “chumship.”
Secret languages and codes, private jokes, wild bravado, and silliness are an exercise in creativity and imagination. They provide a breather from the formal structure of the classroom, the after-school enrichment activity, or the sports team. In order for kids to have an opportunity for joyful secrecy, adults need to recognize its value, turn off scare-mongering newscasts, and give kids the opportunity to connect with each other without vigilant surveillance. This can happen in school, at the park, at a sleepover, at camp, on a family vacation, or by spending the whole night in a tent in the backyard.
It’s important for parents to stay closely involved in their children’s lives and to share experiences with them. We want them to know that they can turn to us or to trusted teachers about the kind of secrets that cause pain. But we also need to give kids a certain amount of space — their space.
We can know our kids well without knowing everything they do. When I talk to groups of parents, I ask them to raise their hands if they were able to play outside on summer nights until dark with no adult knowing where they were. Nearly every hand goes up.
How many of you did things your parents didn’t know about?
And still don’t know?
And how many of you don’t regret it?
Again, nearly every single one.