By Susan Hughes
Eleven-year-old Julia and eight-year-old Matt each frequently complained to their parents about what the other was doing. “They were even reporting on their school friends to us,” recalls their mom, Pam Holland of Toronto. So Holland explained to her kids that they needed to try to sort out more of their problems on their own, and the tattling stopped. Then Holland got a call from Matt’s teacher. Matt was increasingly having trouble at school, even getting into pushing and shoving matches. Upset, Holland asked Matt why he hadn’t confided in her. “I thought it would be tattling,” he said.
His confusion is understandable. Even parents sometimes struggle to know the difference between telling and tattling. Toronto-based parenting expert Alyson Schafer says parents must first understand why kids tattle. “When a child tattles, that child hopes to get the elevated status of being a “good’ child while the sib goes down a few notches and becomes the “bad’ child.” However, she may also be trying to help a sibling or friend by telling an adult and seeking support — a difficult task when it means possibly losing a friendship. “So the parent has to decipher, in the moment, what is my child’s motivation? Is it good or bad?” explains Schafer. But even after you’ve got it figured out, sorting out what to do next can be confusing.
Your nine-year-old son sees his older sister wearing make-up at school. That’s a No-No. He reports it to you. Schafer says he’s tattling. Clearly, he wants to get his sister into trouble. Parents have to show their kids that this doesn’t work. “Parents have to be very unimpressed.” And if it bothers the rule-abiding brother when his sister breaks the rules? “He should take it up directly with her,” Schafer advises.
Your child reports to you that she saw her friend cheating on a test. If she is concerned about her friend, it’s telling. If it is to get her into trouble, it’s tattling. When a child sees something wrong, she should speak up, but not necessarily to you. “As with the make-up incident, we need to help our kids understand that they should speak to the person who is affected most directly by the situation. They can ask themselves, “Who needs to hear what I have to say?’ and then talk to that person.” In this case, that’s the friend, who might appreciate an offer from your child to study together for the next test.
Your 11-year-old’s friend reveals that he sometimes thinks about running away from home. Your son comes to you with this. This too is telling. First, Schafer advises, thank your child for sharing with you. Acknowledge this was a difficult decision for him to make. Next, coach him in what advice to give to his friend to make sure that he is safe. If the situation warrants, ask your child if he’d like you to become directly involved, and how. Try to get him to support whatever action you might take. “You don’t want your child to stop coming to you with problems because of something you did without his agreement. You have to think about how to keep the lines of communication open.”
After promising not to say anything, your 12-year-old daughter confides that her friend has an eating disorder. Definitely telling. Again, Schafer recommends trying to get your child to agree to parental involvement. “You should try to explain that being a good friend can mean getting help for a friend, even if it means breaking a confidence.” But ultimately, in health and well-being issues, even if she doesn’t agree with your involvement, Schafer suggests you overstep any objections and take action by speaking to the girl’s parents. “You can tell her it’s the right thing to do, and that you have to do what is ethically right.”
By learning to distinguish the difference between helping or harming someone by sharing information, kids not only learn that parents trust them to solve their own problems, but can solicit help when appropriate, says Schafer. “And if we show them we can be helpful and not hurtful, they are more likely to open up to us in times of real trouble.”
Susan Hughes is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mom of four teenagers, all of whom still attempt to tattle on one another whenever humanly possible.
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