Telling and tattling

For many kids this is the beginning of the school year. And kids of all ages may already have come up against a terrible social and moral dilemma – what do you do if another kid does something wrong? Do you “tell” or not?

There is a powerful tradition in our society against ‘tattling;’ movies and books describe the badness of ‘ratting someone out;’ the culture of ‘sucking it up’ is very strong. This seems to come from the idea that it’s more important to generate peer loyalty than implement shared moral standards. And yet we say to our children that they should ‘tell a grownup’ if something bad is happening or they need help. Children are getting a mixed message. How can we help them sort this out?

The challenge for grownups is to teach our children to gradually take more responsibility for themselves and learn the skills they need to handle conflict and interpersonal tension. We want them to have the emotional muscles to stick to their own sense of what is right and trust in their own strengths. At the same time, we don’t want them to suffer intimidation in silence; children cannot be expected to defeat bullies alone – they need a supportive culture of zero tolerance for bullying. Maybe first the grownups have to build the emotional muscle to face the complexity of the issue and be prepared to talk to their children about making hard choices.

With little children in preschool and kindergarten, our task is to teach the words to use at first, and then instruct children to seek grownup help if that doesn’t work. But the grownups have to see their job as fostering conflict-resolution skills, not just stopping the kids and punishing in order to move on. Grownups have to take the time and have the patience to listen to both sides of the story and practice the new skills with all the children involved.

Schoolchildren have more experience, but may be struggling with the new scale of big school and the size of the group, as well as a longer day to cope with. Parents and teachers can work together to set up an atmosphere of safety and some guidelines for children to follow. Experienced teachers will quickly spot those children who seek attention and reassurance by constantly whining and complaining about other kids. Instead of becoming impatient and negative, they can try encouraging that child’s strengths, nurturing the emotional muscle to solve problems creatively. “What would happen if you told Johnny that you thought he could be a good player in the game if he followed the rules instead of trying to be the boss?”

Teenagers struggle particularly with what they think is loyalty to their friends. Teens often ask each other to keep secrets, whether it’s about staying out too late or which kids they are spending time with. They are vulnerable to a societal bias that there should be distrust between adults and adolescents. This usually has negative consequences for the ongoing transformation of the relationship between parents and teens, but it can be more dangerous than that. Adolescents need an unequivocal message from parents and teachers that they have to talk to a grownup if they are worried that a friend may harm herself or be suicidal. No youngster should have to carry such a burden alone. It is not tattling and may be life-saving to share concerns about a friend.

Whatever your child’s age, this is a good time to raise the topics of honesty, frankness and sharing and relieve your child of the whole burden of deciding when to “tell.”

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