News & Views
from   The Parenting Center at Abington

.   To Tell Or Not To Tell: That Is The Question

     "Quit tattling!" " Don’t be such a little snitch!" "I don’t want to hear about it!"

  At first we may be glad when our impulsive toddlers begin to learn the rules of our house. It may even seem cute when they point out a sibling or another child breaking a rule -- "She has her shoes on the sofa." Sometimes, the reports on siblings’ behaviors can be helpful in keeping everyone safe -- "The baby has a piece of puzzle in his mouth," or "She’s stuck on top of the swing set."

  Somewhere along the way, though, we may begin to feel like we are living with the "rule" police. Our children may start telling about every real or imagined infraction. They want justice. They want us to take action. They want us to take their side. While it may be developmentally appropriate for our preschoolers to begin internalizing rules, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by their endless list of violations by others. We may worry that our children will be doomed to grow up as a "rat." We tell them to tone it down. We tell them not to bother us. We may feel that we have won the battle. Our children no longer come to us with news of every little violation. They know that they will not be rewarded for being a snitch. And it works, sometimes, for a while, maybe.

  But fast forward in our children’s lives. Imagine the stories on the evening news -- Columbine, teen pregnancies, a rise in teenage suicide. There are so many examples of tragedies facing our children. Following these episodes, we frequently hear the press asking "Didn’t anyone know?" or "Why didn’t anyone get help to stop it?" After years of ordering our children not to tattle, the question really becomes, "Why would they tell?"

  As parents, we want and need the lines of communication to be open with our children; yet we can feel like we are doing a delicate balancing act. On one side, we want our children to learn to handle their problems on their own. On the other side, we want to support and guide them while they are still developing their own moral code. Our children may be left wondering if now is one of those times when they should tell or one of those times when they should be working it out on their own.

  Barbara Coloroso, in her book Kids Are Worth It provides the following guidelines as to when children should or should not tell. From an early age we can help our children distinguish between telling or tattling by asking them if telling us will get another child in trouble or out of trouble. Coloroso suggests that if telling only gets another into trouble, such as the shoes on the sofa example, then that is tattling and don’t tell. Conversely, if telling gets your child or someone else out of trouble, as when the girl was stuck on top of the swing set, then tell. Some cases, Coloroso admits are not as clear cut. Often telling will get someone in trouble and out of trouble. An example would be if your child knows of another who is stealing or experimenting with drugs, or participating in other high risk, dangerous activities. Telling may get the other child into trouble at first, but ultimately may help a child avoid more serious problems. In such a situation, Coloroso advocates telling.

  At first glance, these guidelines may appear simplistic:

    If telling only gets another in trouble then don’t tell.

    If telling helps someone get out of trouble then tell.

    If telling might get someone both in trouble and out of trouble then tell.

 Yet when we think about the mix of messages we may be currently giving our children about tattling, it may feel like a relief to have such straightforward guidelines. We can start with our children when they are little. We can help them learn when they are tattling and when they are telling. Perhaps then when our children are bigger and the issues are bigger, they will know when to tell and ask for help. Maybe then as individuals and as a society, we will be able to intervene before the next tragedy occurs.

By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator

March 2001
Vol. 3/Issue 5

A publication from The Parenting Center at Abington
P.O. Box 596, Abington, PA 19001 (215) 576-0586


Printing of this newsletter is courtesy of the Abington Memorial Hospital.



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