#862: Knowing when to self-police, and when to tattle

Toronto Star, 19 June 2011

The Toronto Star’s June 19th cover story about the aftermath of the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots, had a headline that asked, “If you were his mother, would you recognize him? Would you turn him in?” Obviously, the important question here to parents and children is the latter one.

I once knew a parent who told me, without shame, “When [her son] broke that Christmas ornament in the store, I just told him to put it back on the shelf and quickly walk away. I wasn’t going to pay for that.” The almost-proud, unspoken statement here was, “I wasn’t going to tell on him.”

Tattling—the act of disclosing information about someone else—does a lot more good than people think. So often when we hear our parenting friends (or people in general, whether they’re parents or not) say, “Don’t be a tattle-tale,” it strikes me that this sends the wrong message. Don’t we all want to raise children who know that it’s all right to reveal when a wrong has been done, and then to ask for intervention, help, and justice when needed? When parents tell their children, “No one likes a tattle-tale”—whether in an absent-minded way just to shush them, or in a tone that implies that they should just shut up and put up with it—it’s basically like saying, “Hey, I don’t want to hear it.” Then later when the children are bullied or harassed or molested, how can these parents turn around, wring their hands, and say, “I wish  s/he had told me!”? Mixed messages all around, I tell you. And of course, children who are raised not to be tattle-tales could very well one day end up one day at an Enron-like company, wondering if they should keep their mouths shut.

In our house, as hard as it is for some parents to believe, we encourage tattling. Not the petty, doesn’t-do-anybody-any-good, “He picked his nose today” or “She’s eating another cookie when she’s only allowed to have one!” kind of tattling, but the kind that can help set things right and ensure justice. In fact, I hate using the words “tattle” or “tattle-tale” the way most people do—in that sneering, exasperated tone that says, “You’re scum if you do.” We prefer to label it, “telling someone when something needs to be told.”

For some relatively minor issues, our kids have learned to work things out among themselves before asking an adult to judge and get involved. We encourage the kids to understand that the first step before tattling is self-policing. That’s when someone who’s wise and fair, like the Girl, really shines. She knows when to step in and dish a little time-out (whether it’s to her little brother or to her brother and his misbehaving friend), and when to admit that she herself did wrong and should apologize, and when to take it to an altogether higher court. But for more serious issues—like when someone is hurt or serious damage is done—we’ve always encouraged a little bit of finger-pointing and tattling in an effort to settle important matters. And the beauty of it is, when you tell kids that it’s perfectly all right to “tell on” someone, you let them differentiate slowly between the important things that need to be told, and the minor things that can pretty much take care of themselves.

Whether it’s about childhood wrongs or city-wide riots, we all understand that integrity, truth, and justice are essential in life. It’s a wonderful day when anyone—child or not—learns to distinguish between when to self-police and when to tattle.


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