Conflict resolution may sound like a very grownup expression, but kids can be taught problem solving skills that will help them get along with others, from a very early age. Learning to resolve their own differences gives kids both independence and a sense of accomplishment, and it is an important skill they will carry with them both outside the home and into their adult lives.
My middle daughter just came to me with a very serious look on her face and asked me, “Mommy am I doing the right thing by telling you that ___________?” I won’t go into the specifics, except to say that her coming to me would normally amount to tattling under these conditions. But she also knows this is an issue with which her sister struggles, and that there would be very real consequences for the family – activities put off, chores completed late, friction between the sister and her siblings – if the behaviour went uncorrected. So while she knew there was no one in any immediate danger, she did foresee other negative repercussions.
In this instance, my daughter was thinking of her sister and of the family – not looking to get her sister into trouble! That’s the main difference between telling and tattling.
Telling happens when someone is hurt or in danger of being hurt. It also happens when something has been broken, or there’s a problem that the children can’t fix. (“Somebody pushed a button on the computer, and now the colours are all weird.”) Telling also happens when children have a problem they’ve tried to work out, but can’t. When they realize they are at a stalemate, or when they recognize a recurring issue that is not improving despite their efforts, it is right for a child to turn to a trusted adult for assistance.
Tattling usually involves an attempt to manipulate the situation. A child who doesn’t get her way when it comes to deciding what game to play will threaten to “tell Mommy on you.” A child who catches a sibling breaking a house rule will tattle, not out of any concern for the other’s safety, but out of a perverse pleasure in knowing the sibling will be punished. We’ve all seen it. This is not the kind of behaviour any of us wants to encourage. It creates tension between siblings and drags us into the middle of arguments we’d rather see our kids settle on their own. It also creates problems for the tattling child outside the home.
But when children come to us after having tried to follow our advice on problem solving, it is time for an adult to step in. Problem solving always relies on both parties being willing to resolve the issue. Sometimes it takes Mom or Dad stepping in for both kids to cooperate through the problem solving process.
What I have found helpful is avoiding making any decisions for my children in a situation like this. I listen to the child with the complaint, and I help them sort though the options. When they feel ready to choose one they go off to try it. This is usually enough for the kids to resolve their differences.
If you use the approach try to remember the other child too. Even if the problem is resolved, the other child may still need time alone with a parent for a “debriefing.” Talk about what happened, about how they feel. Try to get them to evaluate their own behaviour in the situation. Was there something they could have done differently? Kids don’t react well to being corrected, but they usually manage to evaluate themselves quite fairly. They don’t feel chastised – just supported and maybe even empowered.