Just as surely as a parent faces piles of dirty diapers and 4 am feedings in the early years of a child’s life, as that child grows they will find themselves having to help that child cope with some kind of interpersonal conflict. Whether it’s sibling rivalry or a fight with a soon-to-be-ex-friend, or maybe even feeling that a teacher at school is picking on them kids will often turn to their parents first, so we need to be prepared to help them.
The Difference Between Tattling and Telling
Tattling is probably the first interpersonal issue a parent faces other than kids not wanting to share, and it can last well into adulthood if it keeps paying off for the individual. Tattling is not the same as telling, although you may use the phrase “telling on” to describe it.
When a child tattles, most often the motive is manipulation of a situation. The child has tried to get something and was refused or out-voted, or has perhaps been excluded from play or has observed another child breaking the rules. When a child tattles, they try to make it seem as though they are doing the adult a favour or fulfilling an obligation. Often they beat around the bush about it, rather than coming straight to the point. They will often highlight their own good behaviour, in contrast to the offense the other has committed.
Telling, on the other hand, generally feels more genuine. The child may use fewer words or may seem distressed, as opposed to the tattler who presents his case triumphantly and is obviously expecting the adult to support him by immediately intervening or punishing the other. They get a little thrill from seeing the other child laid low.
Dealing with Tattling
In our home we teach the children to never take pleasure in another’s downfall. And yes, I do word it that way. It has to be explained when the children are younger, but soon they learn the meaning. We teach them that family means looking out for one another, and that they should strive to be their siblings’ best friend. It doesn’t mean they never fight, but it doesn’t take long now for them to settle a dispute when they’re reminded. They remind each other of it sometimes too.
The other thing we teach the girls is that they should report harm or danger, but not come to us with every little squabble. They may still come to tattle, but when they do we review the situation together: Is anyone hurt or in danger? we’ll ask them. If the answer is “no,” we go on to the next question: Do you see a potential danger here? There might be toys on the floor that could trip someone, or the child may have created a fire hazard by leaving paper or clothing on the radiator. We look for these situations together, and if there is a real danger or harm we are sure to thank the child for telling.
If both answers are negative, we say that it sounds like a situation they can work out themselves. We have sometimes called that tattling, because I believe it is important for them to have a concept of what tattling is – both to avoid doing it, and because they are sure to either be accused of tattling or be the victim of a tattletale sometime in the future. If they can learn to resolve tattling here in the safety of our home, they’ll have the necessary tools to deal with it with friends when we’re not around.
Telling the kids that they can handle it on their own is not dismissive, as long as there is a promise of help (mediation) if they need it later. Rather, it communicates to them a trust in their capabilities, and builds self-esteem.
Issues Around Inclusion
No child likes to be left out or teased because of a difference. None of us likes to be rejected, and this is something that kids can understand at a very early age. How would you feel if….? is a good question to ask your child. Learning the art of walking in another’s shoes takes time, however, so a parent needs to be patient. It may be weeks, months or even years before the child can see the hurt of another in a given situation. Role playing can be helpful in this, as can pointing to similar situations so the child can better identify with another’s feelings. If there is one in the recent past, bring it into the conversation. But don’t be afraid at some point in the future to stop and ask your child, Hey, now do you know how _____ felt last time? What do you think would make you feel better now? Do you think maybe that would have helped then?
Giving children a chance to “try again” can be helpful. Let them rewind the situation a few minutes and make a new choice when they come to the crossroad. This not only offers them a chance to feel successful, but teaches them they create a lot of their life’s circumstances with the choices they make. Choosing to share or to voice their disagreement without judging another child, or perhaps choosing to befriend a child who is being nasty, involves a risk our kids can appreciate, but if they try it out in a safe environment with adult support they can learn to take that difficult step. Even some adults have not learned to do this.
Choosing to Exclude Oneself
Despite the fact that we should encourage our children to include everyone in their activities, there will be some children they don’t much care to be around. That’s OK. We all know someone we don’t much care to be around, and the world doesn’t end if we don’t invite that person to our Christmas party.
It is important to respect a child’s wishes to not be around another child, particularly if they can articulate why. Perhaps that child has been insulting and they haven’t been able to resolve the issue. Perhaps that child has some other inappropriate or offensive behaviour, like teasing or bullying other children. I can recall a situation in which our oldest daughter was chastised at school because of a situation in the playground that involved a friend of hers being left out of play. When she stood up for the friend, and said that they would play together alone, she was accused of excluding the very girls who had rejected her friend in the first place.
We mustn’t punish our children for not wanting to be with someone who hurts them in some way. Although we eventually do have to teach them that sometimes there are no options, and they may have to work with an offensive person in school or on the job, this should certainly not be the case on the playground or in any social or recreational setting. It would be hypocritical of us to expect of our children or students a superior level of inclusion, of which we ourselves are probably not capable.
There is very much a difference between choosing to exclude oneself, and excluding another.
Teaching Children to be Assertive
As part of my college training I had to take group dynamics and assertiveness classes. I can tell you, for most people, learning to speak their mind without losing their cool is harder than all the essay writing and studying for exams they do for an entire degree!
Being assertive is not being aggressive. Rather it is affirming our feelings and wishes. Only we can do this: no one else can fully understand how we feel or what we need, and only we can be expected to work to get what we need.
One of the most commonly taught processes in assertiveness training is how to give “I-messages.” We were taught to focus on ourselves and how we feel, rather than on the other. This prevents us seeming terribly judgemental. It puts the onus on us, to concretely describe the situation and also to suggest an alternative behaviour to the other.
So instead of whining, Why are you so mean to me? we need to say When you pull my hair it hurts me. That covers the first two parts of the formula: When you ______ it _________. The next part offers a solution to the person: I’d prefer that you keep your hands to yourself. So now we’ve described the behaviour in a concrete way, and we’ve owned the feeling it produces in us. Finally, we’ve expressed a preference that includes a positive alternative. So the person can’t say they don’t know how o make amends, because they know what will make the situation better.
Does it work? Surprisingly well! Probably because people are shocked at the frankness of the answer, and are not used to be spoken to this way. Sometimes it takes a little repetition. I’ve had a full grown man stand before me, chuckling and stuttering in his discomfort, asking me what I said as though he couldn’t believe it. When I repeated myself a few times and didn’t back down, he finally realized he had very few options in the situation. He had to back down.
A Respectful Choice
Being assertive does not equate with disrespecting an elder. A child who approaches a teacher, parent or other adult with an “I-message” is expressing himself in a positive manner. This allows him to discuss his feelings rather than to suppress them, and at the same time to avoid speaking harshly or with disrespect. There is no name-calling. It is the behaviour that is the problem – not the person. The person is treated with courtesy, and offered a solution that will help prevent a recurrence of an uncomfortable situation. It may even help them deal with other people, who may be similarly hurt or annoyed but may feel unable to express themselves.
A child should be taught to respect his elders, but he should also be taught that he is deserving of the same respect. No child should ever feel that a teacher, coach, parent or other adult has the right to harm them. Sometimes as adults we don’t realize what we’re doing is hurtful – like calling a child by a pet or diminutive name. It is far better for the child to explain this, than for him to become passive-aggressive and seek out ways to take revenge on the adult. It is also preferable to allowing a person to continue to devalue the child, because he builds his sense of self-worth on how he feels he is valued by others. If he feels no one ever takes him seriously, he will eventually think he is not worthy of being taken seriously.
Parental Support with Other Adults
It isn’t easy to confront an adult – even as an adult! Parents need to be prepared to support their children as they learn to be assertive. Every child at some point will need an advocate, and often the best person to do that is the parent.
Standing up to an adult is a daunting experience. You may need to speak on the child’s behalf, with him present – or at least to introduce the situation to the other adult. Remember that as your child’s parent you are the first and most important adult in that child’s life. No matter what position of authority another holds, that never confers the right to give offense or to belittle. If your child’s feelings have been hurt he deserves to be heard, and the adult needs to show him respect by apologizing and promising to abide by the child’s wishes in future.
Of course the child can’t say the teacher isn’t allow to give him math tests because he finds them boring! But there are many genuine instances in which a child is frustrated or hurt. Teachers, coaches, babysitters, grandparents and parents – we all need a bit of a wake-up call sometimes so we know that we’ve made a mistake. Grown-ups do that, just as surely as kids do. We prove how adult we are by our willingness to accept the child’s feedback with grace, and to change the situation in future.
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“Tattling” Kathy Lynn (Today’s Parent)
“Tattling: how to nip it in the bud” BabyCenter