School-Age Kids, But Not Preschoolers, Understand That Divulging A Friend’s Secret Could Damage The Friendship

By Emma Young

How many secrets have your friends shared with you? The answer could reveal a lot about your relationships. We not only share secrets with people we’re close to, but swap secrets to strengthen relationships. In my new novel, Here Lie the Secrets, I do use the sharing of deeply personal secrets to advance the relationship of my two main characters… However, as we also all know, discovering that a friend goes on to share your secret can seriously damage your relationship.

Secrets, then, have an important role in our social lives. But, asks Zoe Liberman at the University of California Santa Barbara, when do we become aware of this? To what extent do children understand the significance of secrets — and the consequences of spilling them? Her results, published in Developmental Psychology, suggest be that it would be unwise to trust a four-year-old with any kind of secret — but with an 8-year-old, you’re much more likely to be safe.

For the first of three studies, Liberman recruited 51 preschoolers (children start school later in the US than the UK, so these kids were aged between 3 and almost 6) and 67 school-age children, aged between 6 and almost 11. The children were introduced to three cartoon character children, whose gender was matched to the participant: a protagonist, their friend, and a classmate. The kids then either learned that the main character told their friend a secret, or that they told the classmate a secret. When the kids were asked whether they thought the confidante would keep the secret, Liberman established that the school-age group, but not the preschoolers, understand that friends are likely to keep each other’s secrets, while a classmate might not. They understand, then, that secret-keeping is important in friendship.

For the second study, on 80 preschoolers and 175 school age children, Liberman used the same kind of experimental set-up to investigate the children’s thoughts about the consequences for a friendship if one friend either kept or revealed the other’s “personal secret” (described as something they had never told anyone before) to another child. She found that by six years of age, children expect the telling of a friend’s secret to weaken that friendship (an expectation that the 3–5 year olds did not share). Liberman also presented the participants with scenarios in which a “fact”, rather than a secret, was shared. The older children realised that sharing a fact wouldn’t impact a friendship. They understood then, that secrets are special.

In these two studies, Liberman used the terms “secret” and “fact”. But perhaps the younger children didn’t really grasp the meaning of the term “secret”. So for the third study, she used previously validated examples of secrets, facts and surprises instead. Based on earlier work, she expected that the children would understand “He took something that wasn’t his”, for example, as a secret; “There is a playground at his school”, as a fact; and “He is having a surprise party for his dad” as a surprise. This study, on a fresh group of 123 preschoolers and 133 school-age children, largely replicated the earlier results. The older children, but not the younger ones, understood that sharing a friend’s secret with a third party would be damaging to a friendship. Again, they also recognised that sharing a surprise or fact would not have an impact.

“We provide the first evidence that school-age children understand that how secrets are kept and told is related to relationship maintenance,” writes Liberman. And her work does show progressive improvements in this understanding with age. Though it was weak or non-existent in the 3- to 5-year-olds, it was apparent by age 6, and then became stronger through to age 11.

More work is now needed to further explore children’s expectations about secrets. Do kids — as adults implicitly do — understand that secret-sharing is a way of strengthening nascent relationships, for example? And to what extent do children understand that spilling a secret can affect an individual’s reputation?

As Liberman writes, “Secrets are a particularly powerful type of social knowledge and future research investigating children’s inferences about secret sharing will shed light on this critical and understudied aspect of children’s social-cognitive development.”

Keep the cat in the bag: Children understand that telling a friend’s secret can harm the friendship

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest