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How to curb a tattletale

girl with her mouth open looking like she's about to report something bad

My son’s class is rife with tattletales. On the playground, he and his friends regularly approach their teacher in droves, pulling at the bottom of her coat. “Miss, Miss, Miss,” they all cry, competing to be first to tell on their peer. Soon, reports of minor infractions begin to surface from all corners of the playground, and it appears that school yard harmony has given way to complete chaos.

But, it’s not as chaotic as it appears. It’s actually quite normal.

Tattling is part of everyday life for a child—from toddlerhood through to later years. Although it’s common on the playground, to adults, it can seem like a socially polarizing habit. Because of this negative perception, parents sometimes hold an unsympathetic view about telling. But what parents commonly overlook is that this habit is formed largely because of the way we raise them.

Parents take great strides in steering their child’s moral, social and behavioural compass in the right direction, preparing them to integrate into society as they mature. And in doing so, behavioural norms are created for kids.

“Children have a strong desire to maintain norms even when norms are arbitrarily set,” explains Dr. Kang Lee, psychology professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “They learn to stick to the norms from a very young age and do not want people to deviate from it. Kids tattle not out of malice nor attention seeking but the desire to expect others to follow rules.”

When kids comply with the parameters we set out for them, they are generally celebrated or rewarded. When kids break the rules, authority figures often bring attention to the behaviour as a means to correct it. Children, being in tune with their surroundings, absorb this. And as soon as their expectations are altered, it can become a stimulating point of interest that ultimately leads to the desire to tell.

As we teach social norms to our children, it can be expected that they begin to develop a heightened, unbending sense of right and wrong. Children view rules as rigid, says Dr. Lee. “We teach them to follow the rules and therefore they tattle.”

It’s understandable, therefore, that kids find it confusing if they get in trouble for tattling. According to Dr. Lee, parents often fail to teach their kids about when it is good to report behaviour and when it’s not. By the time kids are in school, there is more than right and wrong at stake – there’s the social nuances of being part of a group and knowing when to tell.

When It’s Ok to Tell

  • Work on coaching children to identify situations that require an adult to step in, and situations that don’t. A good rule is for them to ask themselves if they’re telling an adult to get another child INTO trouble or OUT OF trouble.
  • Provide examples of circumstances that require escalation and encourage kids to seek help in potentially dangerous situations.
  • Outline scenarios where intervention is not required and encourage your child to be direct with their peers. This will help foster their communication skills and abilities to problem solve.
  • Ultimately, parents need to understand why kids report on one another and reinforce the positive reasons behind why it’s essential, says Dr. Kang Lee, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “Parents must not show annoyance when their children report on someone else. This will discourage the reporting of important transgressions. It’s important to have this [tattling] because what if bad things happen to them? They should be motivated to tell about these things.”
  • Addressing the habit of being a tattletale will be a work in progress. Children are simply adhering to the lessons passed on to them by parents. And consider that telling could potentially contribute to their wellbeing as you begin to encourage autonomy in your children.

Originally published in the November/December 2016 issue.

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