I spent a couple of days with first graders not too long ago and had my usual good time with kids this age. We colored, we read, we sang, we counted make-believe money, we told about the famous Americans we’ve been reading about. We followed directions, we said our grace before lunch, we shared, and we took turns on the playground. We wrote stories, wrote a letter to our absent teacher. We were good learners.
And we tattled on each other. Oh, my goodness did we tattle on each other!
Gabriella took Annabelle’s pencil. Anastasia wasn’t doing her work. Grady pushed in line. Kayden made faces at Hayden. Ruby wouldn’t share the hula hoops. Lily used the pencil sharpener, and we’re not allowed to.
New teachers tell me this tattling is beyond annoying. New parents agree. How to address it? When are tattle tales okay? When are they nothing more than supreme botheration?
Face it, little kids will tattle. But, here are a half dozen thoughts and techniques I’ve learned over the years that help combat tattle tales. A couple I’ve figured out on my own, others I’ve learned from teachers and parents far more creative than I.
- Tattling is normal. The youngest learners – children in pre-K through first grade, say – like rules and routines. They don’t understand when those rules and routines aren’t adhered to, and they disapprove. They haven’t figured out their “moral compasses” yet. The world is black-and-white to them, and they have a difficult time with shades of gray. This is normal for children. (It is not normal for adults, but that’s a topic for another time.) When they tattle, they’re showing us parents and teachers they know the rules.
- Recognize it for what it is. Sometimes it’s showing that they know what’s expected of them. Showing off a little. Or, maybe it’s confusion. Maybe it’s their way of asking for clarification. “Amaya is eating her paste” may be a tattle tale, or it may be a true concern for a friend’s snack choices.
- There may be many motives. Tattling at its most annoying is merely attention-grabbing. “Look at me! I know the rules better than Lavinia.” But it may be something else. Could be confusion. Could be concern, as in telling about Amaya’s eating the paste. It may be a primitive way to curry an adult’s favor. Or, it may be a report of danger.
- Tattle or report? Some really, really clever teachers showed me how they teach their children the difference between a “tattle” and a “report.” Tattles are nothing more than “telling” on a classmate for behavior that may veer from the norm but really doesn’t amount to much. Reports, on the other hand, tell an adult about behavior that can be dangerous or hurt someone. We report danger. Everything else is tattling. I loved seeing the teachers say, “Is this a ‘tattle’ or a ‘report’?” and watching the little ones screw up their faces in thought as they figured it out on their own. Remember, a true report – “Ms. Throckmorton, there’s broken glass on the playground.” – gets praise.
- Give ways to solve problems. As kids get older, they learn to find ways to solve their playground, classroom, and living room disagreements with their classmates and siblings. We parents and teachers can give children lots of strategies. The most popular and easily understood are sharing, taking turns, speaking up politely but firmly for ourselves, and avoiding the rare child who simply won’t play nicely. (He’ll get the message eventually.) Role-playing often helps by giving children practice with the right words for the right circumstances.
- Tell it to the judge. Some creative teachers tell me they keep a stuffed animal or puppet in the classroom who “listens” to tattle tales but not to reports. Kids who simply have to “tell on” a classmate can do so to the “judge” who listens impassively and non-judgmentally. Sometimes a kid just has to get it off her chest. Then it’s forgotten.
None of these techniques, you understand, will nip tattling in the bud. The only thing that can do that is the passage of time, as kids mature and learn how to resolve their own issues. But we adults can help them along the way by being patient, and constantly reinforcing the main lesson: “Don’t squeal unless it’s a big deal.”