“Don’t be a tattle tale,” Jessica told her seven-year-old son, Eric.
“But, Mom, it’s not fair. Tom threw the ball over the fence. He should get in trouble,” Eric said.
“Your brother will have to figure out how to get his ball back. That’s the trouble he’s in,” Jessica told Eric.
“But, Mom!” Eric replied.
Children tattling on siblings’, friends’ or classmates’ behavior can be annoying. Very annoying. And nobody likes a tattletale, or so it’s said.
Personally, I like tattling, at least for a bit.
When I see a child tattling, I know they are trying to figure out the rules, spoken and unspoken, and how the rules are enforced.
The tattlers are trying to ascertain which rules are critical, and which rules can be bent or broken without serious consequences. In short, tattlers are trying to create their personal value system, and need some help to discern the details.
Some children seem to intuitively understand the intricacies of rules and which ones are the most important. There are some children who have the verbal skills and self-confidence to remind a friend or brother, “We’re not supposed to throw the ball over the fence.” These children don’t feel a need to tattle.
The child who comes to us with names and infractions is trying to figure it out. In reality this child is asking for affirmation and clarification of a rule, and a clear understanding of the consequences of breaking a rule.
How should we deal with a tattler? Here’s what’s worked for me.
First, state the problem the child is concerned about. Restate the rule or expectation. Ask the child why he thinks we have the rule. Empower the child to restate the rule to the offender, as a “friendly reminder”. Let’s go back to Eric’s conversation with his mother, Jessica.
“Eric, so you are concerned that Tom threw his ball over the fence on purpose.” Jessica said.
“Yeah, he should get in trouble. No TV or dessert or something.”
Jessica continues. “Why do you think I tell you not to throw the ball over the fence?”
“Because it’s a rule, “ Eric replies.
“And a rule because..?”
“I don’t know,” says Eric.
“Eric, if you throw your ball over the fence there are some things I’m concerned about. First, you won’t have a ball to play with. Second, you might hit and hurt someone or something that you can’t see. Third, you shouldn’t bother other people’s property.”
“Mom, Tom should get in trouble with you for breaking the rules.”
“Eric, can you please go give Tom a friendly reminder about why we have the rule about not throwing balls over the fence. Remind him, too, that he needs to phone the Browns about getting his ball back, and that they are gone for a week’s vacation.”
Tattling can be about getting attention or trying to get another person in trouble out of jealousy or being mean-spirited. This is more the case with older children. For the five to seven-year-old, tattling is focused on understanding rules and their consequences.
We want our children to confide in us when they are witnessing or find themselves or others in a potentially dangerous situation, so we need to keep communication open with our tattlers instead of sending them away.
When our children tattle, let’s recognize that they are asking for help in understanding the myriad of rules, spoken and unspoken, in our world. Explain the rules and the reason behind the rules. Empower them to give friendly reminders to friends and siblings. Keep communication open so they will come to you with the problems that do need adult attention.
When the tattling quiets, we will have an indication that the tattler is beginning to understand and create his or her own value system of what is important in society.