[Portions reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available through Amazon and other major retailers.]
“She won’t share!”
“He took my crayon!”
“They won’t let me play with them!”
“He looked at me!”
“She poked me!”
“They’re jumping on the couch!”
“He won’t be my friend!”
Few things irritate adults as quickly as a tattle-tale. The kneejerk response is often “Stop tattling!” or “Handle it yourself!” or even to shame (heard of the ‘Get Along Shirt’ where parents force their squabbling children into close bodily contact with one another instead of helping them to communicate and resolve their differences respectfully?) or to punish little tattlers.
But stop for a moment and think: What is being communicated? What is a child actually trying to tell us when they tattle? What message is a child getting by our response?
Tattling is, in effect, a child seeking wise counsel for a situation they don’t know how to handle. When faced with a conflict that just weeks or months earlier would have resulted in tears or snatching or hitting or some combination of all three, a child who has matured and begun to develop some self-control is learning to stop and think instead of just react. But what do they do if no solution presents itself? What if they’ve tried to reason or negotiate with the object of their conflict and been unable to come to a resolution?
What do adults do when they don’t know what to do? Typically, they either respond with maturity and seek out someone they respect and trust to help them deal with the situation, or they degenerate into chaotic emotions and resort to anger, power-plays, and manipulation. Often their response is influenced by their own childhood and how they were taught or not taught, as the case may be, to handle conflict.
When a child tattles, what they are actually doing is a rudimentary form of the advanced life skill of ‘Pause. Think. Respond.’ but they need help finding an appropriate and effective response. The child who seeks out an adult for guidance is indicating trust in the adult and respect for the adult’s opinions and abilities. If the adult reacts with irritation, “Stop tattling!” or rejection, “Handle it yourself!” or punishment, the child learns not to trust, not to seek guidance, and not to share struggles and problems with those entrusted with their care, a potentially dangerous mentality, as we’ll discuss later. In addition, an excellent teachable moment is lost.
When a child approaches a trusted adult with a problem, the child is saying, “This is important. Hear me. Help me.” This is a wonderful opportunity to guide the child through the process of conflict resolution. So often we relegate life skills such as conflict resolution to textbooks and worksheets, if we address them at all. But learning is far more powerful and effective if it is tied to real-life, real-time issues that are important to us, that impact our lives, that matter.
So how do we handle the kneejerk irritation response when confronted with a tattling child? First, tossing out the tattling label entirely helps to adjust our mindset and focus on the child’s need for guidance. We can rename it ‘sharing’ or whatever else will help us in the rethinking process (though in our home it is just a normal and accepted part of our parent/child interaction and doesn’t have a name of its own to distinguish it from any other kind of communication).
Next, we can have prepared responses ready so that we aren’t ‘stuck’ when we’re trying to cope with our instinctive irritation in the same moment that we need to focus on helping an upset child in need of guidance.
Here are some possible responses:
If the child is over-wrought…
- “I can see you’re upset. Let’s take a minute and breathe together, and then we’ll be able to think clearly.”
When the child is calm enough to talk…
- “Can you tell me what happened to upset you?”
- “Why do you think they did that?”
- “How do you think we should handle that?”
- “What could you have done differently?”
- “What would you want them to do if you had been the one to do that?”
Often just feeling heard is enough to help the child find their own solution to the problem, but if further guidance is needed we can brainstorm solutions with them, walk them through some possible scenarios, or step in and help them to resolve the problem.
In addition to teaching valuable conflict resolution skills, giving our children the sure knowledge that they aren’t alone in the world and don’t have to cope with life on their own is a vital message. Logically speaking, does it really make sense to teach our children that they can’t trust us with their problems, can’t come to us when they’re stressed and don’t know how to cope, can’t seek wise counsel when confronted with situations that are beyond their ability to handle?
The potential ramifications of that mindset are chilling. Can we really expect children to have the mental clarity and emotional maturity to be able to distinguish ‘good’ telling from ‘bad’ telling when faced with bullying or peer pressure or sexual predators? It’s well known that sexual predators manipulate children with threats such as, “No one will believe you,” and, “No one will listen, anyway.”
Guarding our children against those lies, against the bullies, against pressure from their peers is essential, and keeping the communication doors flung wide open is certainly a powerful step in the right direction.
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.