Tattling versus Telling: Deciphering the Gray Area

This summer, I talked with a dad on the beach.  He told me how his 10 year old son was at sleepover camp.  Something happened...and his son ended-up "telling" on a group of boys.  Well, he became a pariah...hiding from his peers...isolated...afraid.  "I told him, 'Next time, mind your own business!  Don't be a tattletale,'" said his dad.

This conversation got me thinking.  When kids are little, we advise them to get a "grown-up" involved if they feel uncomfortable with another child's actions.  Certainly, when we discuss "bullying", we always advocate "speaking-up".  So, how do kids and parents decipher the gray area between "telling" and "tattling"?

"I would draw the line at safety," says Susan Epstein, a parenting coach based in New London.  "If your safety or someone else's safety is in question, always 'tell'."

Epstein points out: this issue does change as children get older because, with age, friends will sometimes turn on a kid if he "tells". 

Parents can say this to their child:  "If you feel like you're being threatened emotionally or physically, or you know someone else is, that's more important than someone picking on you later.  We can protect you."

But, if the consequences aren't dire - say, children are simply squabbling amongst themselves or someone is breaking a small rule, ie: talking during library - a youngster should learn to handle it himself, not run to an adult.

"Probably at the age of 8 or 9, they can start fighting a little bit of their own battles," says Epstein, noting that we parents can step back and give our kids the space to figure out social norms on their own.

Bottom line: these experiences can be a complicated, painful part of growing-up but parental trust and support go a long way.

"Have open communication with your kids and process (the situation) before or after and always support them and find out, were they afraid to 'tell'?  Did they want to 'tell'?  Was it about safety?  Don't just make a judgement," says Epstein.  "I think you need to be open to listening to your kid."

Check out this article from Metro Kids for more thoughts on this important topic.

What do you think?  Have you spoken to your child about "tattling" versus "telling"?

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