the tattle tales

If there’s one thing I learned over the summer with the seemingly interminable visits of my siblings and their offspring, it’s that kids LOVE to tattle.

My kids, being young, are still fairly honest.  My son will march into a room and announce with distress, “Mommy, I was jumping in the crib and it BROKE!”  If I ask my daughter, “Goobie, did you color on the door?” she will sweetly answer, “Yes.”

The older kids seem to be a bit wilier.  When I went to investigate the abovementioned crib incident, my 6- and 4.5-year-old nieces gleefully proclaimed, “He was jumping in the crib!  WE weren’t doing it, just him.  See, here’s where it broke.  And I think he took my drawing, too, because I can’t find it.”  Peatie endured my lecture and his subsequent removal from Grandma’s house looking dismayed and chagrined; I found out later that Goober quietly told Grandma, “My cousin was jumping in the crib, too; the cousin in the blue shirt.”

There’s a lot that bothers me about this and the several similar incidents I witnessed.  First off, my nieces lied about their involvement in the crib-breaking event.  Second, any child who’s present for such sustained rule-breaking (that crib did not break in one bounce) is, in my book, equally guilty unless they were taking significant steps to deter the others.  Third, it thoroughly irks me when children try to make life worse for others, in this case by magnifying the situation and attempting to add additional blame and infractions.  There are several blog posts imbedded in this paragraph, but today my focus is on the last issue.

So why do kids tattle?  At times, tattling can be a reaction to distress.  Small children’s lives are governed by the rules of their environment.  These rules (if consistent) provide a sense of security; little ones know what is allowed and not allowed, so they are able to function comfortably.  If someone breaks a rule, this rocks a little person’s world; they want an adult to firmly bolt that world back down by reinforcing the rules.

But at some point, tattling loses that sort of benevolent glow.  At some point, tattling seems to be about the balance of power: getting the authority figure to frown upon a playmate and, in turn, gaining a holier-than-thou glow for oneself.

Because I wish to heartily discourage the second form of tattling, I also gently discourage the former.  When one of my kids rushes to me with a tale of what the other has done, I listen solemnly and affirm their distress at the broken rule.  I then ask, “Did you remind __ what our family rule is?”  And send them off to speak to their sibling.  Within a few moments, I will check in to make sure all is well and provide any necessary correction—but I want my correction to be disconnected from the tattle.  I want my kids’ first resource to be their own words and actions, not, “I’ll tell Mom!”

Lately I’ve been on a parenting book kick.  One of the common parenting-book themes I’ve noticed is the idea that parents should encourage (and help) their children to solve problems themselves, without needing to enlist the help of a parent.  Over and over, I’ve been told that this is an excellent way to foster good sibling relationships and to equip children to better deal with other difficult relational situations later in life.

I like the idea of encouraging my children to solve conflict independently.  This doesn’t mean that I’ll turn away a child who’s being chased by a sibling with a hammer; it means that I will mediate for them, protecting them as a parent while also coaching them to find words to describe their problem and ways to compromise.  Hopefully this will prevent future teachers from needing to assign my children their own personal “Tattle Notebook” and bosses from, well, from firing them in exasperation.

What’s your take on tattling?

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4 thoughts on “the tattle tales

  1. I like your take on tattling. My son is not talking or tattling yet, but I can relate to what it feels like to work with kids who are constantly telling on their peers and don’t seem to have any practice in independent problem-solving. I think you’re doing your children a great service in trying to balance mediation and encouraging their self-sufficiency. I’m sure their employers will thank you later when they are well-rounded individuals. I hope to do the same for my little boy!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m finding that it’s sometimes hard to practice what I preach, since my gut response to hearing about some misdeed is to go running and intervene. Most of the time I do okay, since I feel like it’s important to respond that way, but sometimes I slip!

  2. This is a topic I have yet to face, but I think your way of handling it is really good. I think we put too much emphasis on what the kids are saying and trying to solve it for them rather than helping them fix the initial problem to begin with, regardless of who did what.

    I read somewhere that tattling shouldn’t be encouraged in general and that just because another kid did wrong, the kid who tattles isn’t exactly in the clear. Some parenting books even liken tattling to gossiping.

    • I don’t know that I’ve heard the gossiping connection before, but I can definitely see it–and I definitely don’t want my kids to grow up to be gossips! I’m all about problem solving and developing personal responsibility.

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