Prologue: I was almost entirely finished this post when I was called away briefly to deal with something. The moment I got out of my computer chair, my almost-four-year-old Jacob ran over and closed my browser window. The whole post was lost, because I did not heed the excellent advice save early, save often that we’re all given when working with computers. This has led to much frustration on my part. It also ended up being an excellent object lesson for my post about tattling, and how sometimes you actually wish you had gotten a heads-up.
When my firstborn Hannah was one year old I read Barbara Coloroso’s excellent parenting book Kids are Worth It!: Giving your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. One of the things I took note of from the book was Coloroso’s discussion of tattling. She had a handy rule of thumb: tattling is when you’re getting another kid in trouble (bad) and telling is when you’re getting another kid out of trouble (good). This seemed very logical to me, and I planned to teach it to my own children when they were old enough to understand it.
Some six years later, though, with two kids of my own I have to say that while I still love a lot of what Barbara Coloroso has to say, I think this rule is a vast oversimplification of the daily reality of tattling that I’m living. I cannot, with a straight face, tell my kids not to tattle. Tattling comes in handy way too often for that. Plus, there are a whole lot of situations that just aren’t covered by the in trouble / out of trouble rule.
No one’s tattling here
Tattling: Not so Clear-Cut
Here are just a few examples of situations I encounter as a parent that fall into what I consider a tattling gray area:
- My son Jacob is playing around in my garden. Is he in danger? None whatsoever. Are my plants in danger? Absolutely – and some of them are probably already dead.
- My daughter Hannah is playing with her friend, and her friend has found some cherries I was saving to make ice cream. If the friend eats them my ice cream plans are in peril, but no one is in danger.
- Both of my kids have broken a major house rule – like, say, they’ve started physically fighting with each other – and now they want to tell me about it. But at this point, no one’s actually hitting each other anymore.
The truth is that, as a parent, I find that tattling can sometimes come in handy. My daughter Hannah is seven, which means that she’s far too young to supervise a younger child. However, she’s more than old enough to tattle. I know that if her brother’s up to something he shouldn’t be, like playing around in my garden, she’ll be only too eager to come and report on it. This gives me a certain peace of mind when my kids are playing somewhere out of my direct line of sight. Would my daughter know what to do in an emergency? No, but she’d certainly come and tell me about it. And as Jacob approaches his fourth birthday, he’s more and more inclined to report on his sister, as well.
Sometimes I think they’re conspiring against me
It’s also not the case that I only want to hear about situations where one of my kids is in actual physical trouble. I want to hear about situations where my property is in danger, where some foodstuff of other is being dumped all over the kitchen floor, where my tomato plants are being trampled or where someone has decided to play around in the kitty litter. There are a whole host of things I’ve encountered as a parent that probably lean in the direction of tattling, but that I tacitly encourage. At this point, I can’t tell my kids not to tattle without coming across as a huge hypocrite.
At the same time, sometimes the tattling gets to me. The constant, “Mom! Mom! Mom! I have to tell you something! Mom! Mom!” can grate on a person. Plus, I find that I often get called in to deal with situations I know my kids can handle themselves. I don’t want to spend my life playing the bad cop, or helping a kid get their way just because they were the first one to come running to me with a story of how very wronged they are. Tattling is not a universally good thing, and once you’ve allowed it to happen most kids aren’t going to spend a lot of time considering whether this is something that they should be sharing or not.
I want to let my children learn how to navigate the world under their own steam, and solve their own problems. But the truth is that they’re not there yet, and this is why they have parents. Tattling can be a sign that they need help in figuring out how to navigate a sticky situation. Sometimes I send the tattling child back to handle it themselves, and sometimes I see the need and step in. And sometimes I just can’t take one more mess on my floor, and I’m grateful if someone tells me before it happens so that I can put a stop to it.
I don’t know if I’m setting my kids up for a lifetime of tattling. What I do know is that I’m doing the best I can, and that parenting is a messy and complicated business. I just don’t always know the best way to respond, and I sometimes welcome tattling. What do you think? Do you find tattling helpful or harmful? And do you really think that simple rules work in parenting? I’d love to hear your thoughts!