Thanks to Michelle for this guest post about tattling!
“You’re tattling again,” my daughter tells me the teacher responded to her one afternoon. My daughter approached her first-grade teacher to inform her that a fellow classmate was opening supply cabinets.
“So, are we allowed to go into those cabinets?” my six-year-old questioned.
“No,” her teacher replied.
This is just one of many examples involving “tattling” that my daughter has brought home from her year and a half in public elementary school. For her, tattling is a new concept since it is not a phrase we use at home. When our two daughters come to us about another child’s behavior, we listen because our child has come to us with a concern. We don’t solve the problem for her. But, we do help her find language to address her concern with the other child.
In this situation, we might have responded with, “Thank you for noticing what’s happening in the classroom. I know that you can remind your classmates of our rules. Do you want me to stand near you this time while you let him know?”
Why do kids tell?
In this instance, my daughter’s immediate follow up question reveals her primary motive in coming to the teacher. She is asking, “Is that student doing something that is allowed? Am I allowed to go into those cabinets, too?” Her motive is not to cause the other child to have consequences or be punished. Rather, she sees something happening in the classroom that does not make sense to her and she is seeking out clarification from the authority figure in the room. How do I know this? Because I asked her and my daughter has a history of responding with honesty. There have been situations where she does want another child (usually her younger sister) to face negative repercussions and she is typically upfront about that desire.
My daughter attended a preschool focused on helping children stand up for their bodies, articulate their personal boundaries, and confront unwanted behavior from others. She is no stranger to saying, “No!”, “Stop!”, and “Respect my body!” She has also been raised in an environment both at home and in her preschool setting where adults have been her resources when others don’t listen to her boundary setting. Her first week of kindergarten involved a boy in her seating group calling her names and purposefully spitting in her face. My child did exactly what she had been raised to do. She repeatedly responded, “Stop spitting in my face! Don’t call me that!” When she got home, she told me about the incident and her reaction, and I felt reassured that she was able to look a new child in the eye and establish boundaries for how that person should treat her.
Children looking for help
In other words, my child does not run to adults to solve her problems for her. But, she does need to be able to turn to the grownups in her environment when someone fails to listen to her boundary setting, when a situation is confusing, or when she is uncertain how to appropriately handle a conflict. As adults, we have access to many resources. We can seek help from family and friends. When conflicts escalate, we can call the police or other emergency personnel. We can choose to get help from a counselor, therapist, or professional mediator. If we are uncertain about a rule or law, we can search for information on our computers and phones. We can even drive ourselves to the library and find entire books filled with information and resources that can help us. Now imagine if you were five or six years old and navigating a new school classroom environment. What resources are at your disposal? Who can you turn to in times of conflict or confusion? Naturally, your teacher is the first person that comes to mind.
After a year and a half of wading through a school culture that is drastically different than our home and preschool experiences, I can’t recall all of the times the term “tattling” has been on my daughter’s tongue as she got into the car after school. In fact, I struggled with finding just one or two examples to write about in this post. In the end, I decided that what is most important in all of the incidents that we have experienced is that my daughter is looking to her teacher for guidance and it is not being given. My child’s teachers have not been the resources she has needed when peer conflicts have arisen and classroom rules have been confusing. Instead, she has received a curt response to “stop tattling.” During our fall conference, her current teacher informed me that my daughter is “a little police officer.” After a conversation in which my husband and I tried to articulate our point of view about why we don’t use the term tattling in our household, the teacher continues to use that phrase with my daughter.
Tattling vs telling
Based upon a Google search of tattling in the classroom, our school’s approach does not seem to be isolated or unique. Teachers are charged with the responsibility of helping children distinguish between “tattling and telling.” Telling is intended to be something that violates the physical or emotional safety of another. Some teachers seem to group all of the concerns children express about their peers and possible violations of classroom rules into the category of “tattling”. I believe this distinction is nuanced and difficult for a kindergartner or first grader to understand. Additionally, grown-ups may have a difficult time understanding what constitutes a violation of a five or six-year-olds “emotional safety.” “She won’t play with me at recess unless I give her my marker,” might feel like a small incident to a parent or teacher. For a child, this might be a difficult and emotionally threatening situation that requires the help of an adult to navigate.
Using the term “tattling” communicates that a child’s concern is not worth adult attention. When my daughter has received this feedback from teachers, she has articulated that she feels corrected, scolded, and silenced. When we use this language, we are shaming our children for having a concern that feels too big to handle on their own. How can we expect them to turn to us throughout their lives as their challenges grow if we cannot take the time to listen and help them now? As a mother, I worry about the long term consequences of my child learning in an environment where her concerns are communicated to be invalid, unimportant, and extraneous to the learning environment. In fact, one website indicated that tattling takes away from “real learning,” but isn’t learning to respond to conflicts with our peers one of the hardest, ongoing lessons of our lives?
There are better approaches out there
During my research, I was happy to find this resource from Responsive Classroom that argues for a more nuanced approached to tattling. It is important to empower our children to resolve conflicts and establish boundaries with their peers. As parents and teachers, we do our children a disservice when we intervene and do this difficult work for them. When faced with a child who brings us a concern about a peer’s behavior, we can role model how to communicate with others and help our children find the words to articulate their needs. If we fail to do this, we communicate harmful messages that can have a long term impact in silencing our children. When we dismiss their attempts at communicating a concern as mere attention seeking behavior or a general nuisance, we are creating an environment in which adults cannot be trusted to be the resources our children need.
A balanced perspective from Responsive Classroom: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/what-to-do-about-tattling/
Difference between tattling and telling: http://www.togetheragainstbullying.org/the-difference-between-telling-and-tattling
Managing tattling in the classroom: https://classroomcaboodle.com/teacher-resource/tattling-school/
Michelle is a former college administrator turned stay-at-home mom in central Ohio. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and a mom alongside her five and six-year-old daughters. Michelle attempts to knit, crochet, practice yoga, and read fiction in the midst of mothering.