Urging Children to Keep Secrets

When mothers of 3- and 5-year-old children ‘accidentally’ broke a Barbie doll, they asked their children not to disclose what happened.  Subsequently, only 1 of 49 children mentioned this to an interviewer when asked what happened (Bottoms et al., 1990). Even when asked specific and leading questions about the event, 5-year-olds did not reveal the secret. In another study, 4- to 10-year-old children witnessed a staged event of a stranger who stole a book, and were asked to keep the theft a secret. When the owner of the book asked the children if they had seen who took it, 82% of the children either delayed reporting the theft or never reported it (Peters, 1991).

In still another study, an adult spills ink on a pair of gloves the child is wearing.  The adult furthermore tells the child that she [the adult] would get into trouble if anyone found out. Subsequently, 42% of the 5-year-olds claimed not to know who spilled the ink, and 25% maintained their claims of ignorance in response to repeated questions 10 days and 2 months later (Wilson & Pipe, 1989).

These data create a difficult paradox: (1) Children can be coerced into keeping secrets, and often will not disclose the secrets unless interviewed in a leading and suggestive manner. (2) Leading and suggestive interviews, however, can also lead children into reporting events that never occurred. When children disclose a history of abuse in response to leading and suggestive questions, we cannot determine whether (1) the child disclosed because the effects of the leading and suggestive questions overcame the previous of coerciveness? or (2) the effects of the leading and suggestive questions created false memories?

Here and Now Influences on Memory

Today’s attitudes and expectations influence our memories of the past more than anything else (Bradburn, Rips, & Shevell, 1987).  When asked what time of the year John Kennedy was assassinated, for example, many residents of Great Britain reported it was Summer (Lewinsohn & Rosenbaum, 1987). Remembering JFK riding in an open car on a warm and sunny day, and unfamiliar with the mild Dallas weather in November, they mistakenly recalled the assassination as occurring during the Summer months. In other words, people frequently re-invent the past in accordance with their present-day thinking and assumptions (Friedman, 1993. Indeed, people frequently revise their memory of the past to suit their present circumstances (Ross, 1989). Depression, for example, increases the probability of people remembering their parents as rejecting and relying on negative controls. This effect, however, promptly disappears as the level of depression diminishes (Lewinsohn & Rosenbaum, 1987).