When my daughter was in pre-school, a classmate named Tommy angrily reported to their teacher “Hannah can jump higher than me.  She’s not being a good friend.”  Full of dread and certain she was going to get in “big trouble” (for that is what her young friend assured her was going to happen), Hannah sat herself at the time-out table and waited for her teacher’s inevitable reprimand. Fortunately for her, that seasoned teacher had been on the receiving end of a tattle or two in her career, and kindly re-directed Tommy without punishing Hannah for her innate ability to bounce well.

If you’ve ever spent time with a child during his or her early school-age years, chances are good that you, too, have been on the receiving end of over-zealous tattling, inspired by magnification of an everyday, non-dangerous issue. The term “tattletale” is sometimes even worn as a badge of honor by young people who pride themselves on bringing their interpretation of fairness and justice to all. For most parents and Early Childhood Educators I know, managing tattling can be an all-day, every day, exhausting affair.

But oh, what most upper elementary and middle school teachers I know would give to have the Tommy-tattles-too-much problem!  By the time most children become tweens and teens, the fear of being branded a “tattletale” is the ultimate barrier to a student’s open communication with an adult about a problematic peer situation.The young people I talk to repeatedly tell me that they’d rather let a classmate get away with hurting them or stealing their property than risk making their situation worse by telling an adult.

While no parent or professional wants to spend their day fielding catastrophized reports of minor classroom or playground squabbles, nor do adults want to be left in the dark about dangerous, harmful peer interactions.  Somewhere in between the extremes of gratuitous tattling and shame-based cover ups, we must help kids find a tenable middle ground in which they can reach out to trustworthy adults for help.  Teaching kids the key differences between tattling and telling is a core safety issue for young people, who need clear guidelines on when to handle conflicts independently and when to reach out to adults. 

Waiting until the upper elementary years to teach kids the differences between tattling and telling is waiting too long; once kids believe that their social standing will get worse if they reach out to an adult about a peer issue, it is very hard to convince them to reach out at all. In my role as a School Counselor, I have made it a practice to start teaching kids as young as five years old this set of easy-to-relate-to, easy-to-apply rules to know the difference between being a tattletale and being someone who is smart enough to discern when adult intervention is needed:

It’s Tattling if:

1. No one is hurt or injured

Ella wants to hang out at the park after school.  Maya wants to play at her house instead.  Maya gets mad at Ella for not agreeing to her plan and tells her Mom that Ella isn't being nice.

2. The person did it by accident and is sorry

Carson accidentally bumped into Jackson in the lunch line, causing Jackson to spill his drink.  Carson tells Jackson he is very sorry.

3. This is the first time something like this has happened

Carson has never bumped into Jackson before.

4. You have the power to solve this on your own

Jackson talks it out with Carson and the kids agree that it's not a problem.

5. Your goal is to get someone in trouble

Sage is mad at her brother, Benny, so she tells their Mom about Benny's secret stash of candy under his bed.

6.  This is a "So What?" issue

Hannah jumped higher than Tommy.

It’s Telling if:

1. Someone is truly hurt and needs help

Ella and Maya are playing at the park after school.  Ella jumps off of the swing and badly twists her ankle.  She is in a lot of pain.  Maya runs home and tells her mother that Ella needs help.

2. The person did it on purpose to be mean

Carson purposely bumped into Jackson in the lunch line, causing Jackson to spill his drink.  Carson laughs in Jackson's face.

3. The same thing keeps happening over and over again and nothing you do has stopped it.

Every single day this week, Carson has been pushing or shoving Jackson at lunch. 

4. You don’t have the power to solve this without an adult’s help

Jackson has tried ignoring Carson, walking away, and telling Carson to "stop" but nothing seems to change.  Carson's aggression is only getting worse!

5. Your goal is to keep someone safe

Benny had six cavities at his last dentist appointment.  Sage privately tells their Mom about her brother's secret stash of candy.

6. This is a “This matters!” issue

Hannah keeps teasing Tommy about what a horrible jumper he is.  No matter what he says, she will not stop mocking him in front of all of the other kids.

Learning how to manage conflict effectively and with dignity is a sophisticated skill.  (You might even know a few adults who are still working on this ability!)  No child is born knowing how to solve problems on their own and every child needs an adult who will teach them specific skills for navigating social interactions and handling interpersonal frustrations.  Conflict is as much a part of a child’s life as breathing; giving kids a set of rules that help them organize their thinking and guide their decision-making about when to reach out to adults is like giving them oxygen.

Signe Whitson, LSW is a School Counselor, author, and international educator on bullying prevention.  For more information or training inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com.  To find out more about using the Tattling or Telling Rules with kids, check out the 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids & Tweens.

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