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Challenge: Expert Advice

Telling or Tattling… Is There Really a Difference?

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Telling Or Tattle Telling

Good Afternoon,
I am a parent of a 5 year old boy. I wanted to ask the advice of the panel in regards to "tattling". My son's school has taught him that he is not supposed to tattle that "there is a difference between tattling and telling". My son has been through some bad experiences (having snacks taken away by other students, being excluded, and now had a child pee on his shoe). My son continues hold this belief that he should not tattle because he will get people in trouble and will then not have any friends. I am concerned that this has opened the door to my son being bullied.
My question is, should children his age be taught the "difference between tattling and telling?" And is there truly a difference at this age?
Thank You for your time,

We recently had a parent pose this question through our Contact Us form. One of our experts, education consultant and social-emotional development guru Jennifer Miller shares her thoughts.

First of all, your child is right on schedule developmentally. Tattling is a hallmark of the preschool and kindergarten age child attempting to develop self-regulation. Though the adult caregiver or teacher understandably does not want to be approached with every problem that arises in a classroom, the child is expressing his developmental need to understand and uphold the rules. This process takes time and lots of practice exercising his burgeoning self-control skills. Children first learn about the rules by enforcing them in others. Only then can they internalize and apply those rules to themselves. So take this experience as evidence that your child is working hard on learning the rules of school, a critical readiness factor for the elementary years.

As a parent, you want to act as a true partner to your child’s school by showing your support of their rules and routines. I would suggest beginning to teach your child that there are different rules in different settings. Rules at home may not be the same as the rules at school, but each are important in order to get along in those environments.

At home, you can:

  1. Understand the role of tattling in development.

    Realize that your son will not likely be “tattling” in eighth grade. This is part of his development and will not last beyond his current stage.

  2. Clearly articulate and review the rules at home.

    Because he is working hard on understanding what the expectations are of him and others his age, you can advance his learning by engaging in talk and play around rules. Pretend play encouraging him to lead the teaching of stuffed friends or action figures in following rules. Let him know when it’s important for him to tell you when he’s been hurt. For young children, they need to know that an adult will keep them safe if they feel in danger, physically or emotionally. And for each child, those perceptions of danger will vary.

  3. Reinforce his learning, reflect his feelings back and then, redirect.

    Each time he comes to you about a playmate’s misbehavior, you might offer “I am glad to see you understand the rule about taking turns with toys. It looks like your friend, Ben, is still working on learning that rule. But I see you are frustrated. What could you do when you go back to him so that you both get to play?” In that statement, you will not only acknowledge what he is feeling and working on learning, but also help him empathize with his friend who is also learning and redirect him to think about alternatives to reengage with the friend and solve his own problem.

Because the rules at school are clearly defined, “telling not tattling," I would tend to seek clarification knowing that the teacher has my son’s best interests in mind. Use that as a way to introduce the topic of concern with your child’s teacher in a way that demonstrates your partnership. “I want to be sure I am supportive of your rules with my son. I was unclear about the tattle telling rule and also had concerns about his safety. Can you help me understand it and what you would ideally like him to do instead?” Share one of your examples of him being excluded or hurt by a classmate with the teacher so that she understands what you mean by ensuring his safety. That should help you better understand where she draws the line of telling versus managing the problem on his own.

Avoid contesting the teacher’s rules. There are many reasons (and experiences too) that lead to those rules a parent can’t possibly know. Approach it constructively as you might with a spouse, partner, or fellow in-home caregiver. Begin with words of support and then, request that she offer you a single or several possible alternatives to teach him instead when another child mistreats him, then practice and reinforce those behaviors at home.

If you are aware of specific challenges he has with peers, role play out simple responses or ways he can redirect his play in the moment to help him be prepared with his own strategies for school. Keep them short. Play act them and make it fun! This will help him remember the practice at school. You might say, “Stop. You know that’s wrong.” Then, practice walking away and finding a different toy in a difference part of the room. Young children need lots of practice so repeat a number of times. You may find he repeats it in play on his own. With this preparation, he may just feel more confident in responding to his peers in the moment of conflict at school.

If you do so, you’ll equip him with the critical practice he requires to exercise self-control in school, a key differentiator of a successful student, while maintaining your trusting relationship with his teacher. Now that’s a win-win for all!

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