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My Four Year Old Is Keeping Secrets From Me! And That's Ok.

My 4 Year Old Is Keeping Secrets from MeMy son is a three-foot-high man of mystery.

Felix has been in pre-K for six weeks and I still have little idea what his typical morning looks like. I’m not completely in the dark — his teachers email a rough plan, and I’ve gotten a snapshot by spending a few minutes in the classroom’s observation booth — but as for what toys and friends Felix plays with, or what activities he enjoys, I don’t have much of a clue. When I ask about his time at school, Felix says, “It’s a secret.” Or, “I can’t tell you.” Or, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

It’s become a bit maddening, this hidden life of his. One day over lunch I confronted him. “What do you mean it’s a secret?”

He shrugged. Took a bit of peanut butter and jam. Tracked a squirrel out in the garden burying a nut or something for the winter. “It’s a secret.”

“But Daddy’s just curious about your day. Mommy said you were building with blocks when she left you. What else did you do?”

“It’s a secret.”

“What did you play at recess?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Did you sing songs with your teachers?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Read a story?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Were you nice to your friends?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“WHY WON’T YOU LET ME IN?”

“It’s a secret.”

At this point I broke down in the face of his stonewall. Turned resentful. Sullen. “If you won’t tell me about your day then I won’t tell you about mine,” I said. “We’ll sit here in silence.”

“Ok,” he said.

Well, of course it was ok by him. He’s so tired after school that he would rather space out to public radio than make chit-chat. Meanwhile, I sat there stewing. We’re paying tuition — he owes me an account of his time in the classroom. If these are the kinds of walls he erects at four, what’s he going to be like at fourteen? He has no right to be so withdrawn!

But of course he does. He’s differentiating. His whole short life he’s been slowly pulling away from his mother and me. That’s what growing up is all about, right? School is Felix’s place, his time to be an independent boy away from my wife and me. He’s obviously proud of himself for being in “big boy school.” Sometimes, when he reveals that he got in trouble, he’s embarrassed, and expresses fear that we’ll feel disappointed in him. I think these emotions, both the good and the bad, are overwhelming for him to handle. “I’m shy,” he told me today. “I won’t tell you about school ’cause I’m shy.”

It’s so new! Not only is he learning how to be a person on his own, in a group of his peers, with authority figures other than his parents, he’s also learning how to talk about these experiences. I’m not even sure he remember everything that happens. Often at pick-up he’ll tell me he’s tired. “It’s been a long day,” he says, though the clock’s yet to reach noon.

I’ve found that the less I ask, and the less interested I seem, the more he shares with me. Walking home in silence, he’ll suddenly drop some fact about acorns that he learned in class. Or demonstrate a new yoga pose while I make lunch. Or ask me if I’ve ever heard of the show “Scooby-Doo,” which a friend told him about at recess.

My role is to let him know that I’m here if he wants or needs to talk, and to encourage his curiosity— “of course I know Scooby-Doo,” I told him, “I watched that when I was a little boy!” — but otherwise, I stay out of his way. Hey, even four year olds need their space, and time to process their experiences. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just sit back and watch your little birds fly, secure in the knowledge that they’re doing it on their own, without you.

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