Monday, July 25, 2011

Tattling: The Post I Will Read In 3-5 Years And Have A Good Laugh At My Own Expense

I love kids. I have always loved kids. Kids are joy pure and simple, they are fluffy clouds, rainbows, unicorns, and kittens all rolled up into little humans... Even though they don't always act like it. When they don't act like it I can put up with defiance and sass mouth, I have all the patience in the world for doddling and never ending random questions, but if there was one trait that I could genetically engineer out of every child everywhere it would be tattle telling.

Maybe it's the fact that I am not really into rules. Maybe I just like it when people mind there own dang business. Whatever it is, the constant whining drawn out calls that 'so and so did something' make my skin crawl. They make me want to scream. Make me want to banish otherwise perfectly lovable & awesome children to a deep dark pit never to be heard from again. Seriously.

Every child I've ever met has come into this phase at some point and for years I have been very carefully observing what makes these tattle tales tick in order to minimize, if not totally eliminate it from my son Oliver's development.

Will it work? Most likely not, I highly suspect that tattling is just one of those perfectly normal developmental stages that we must do our best to accept, but my sanity is so totally worth the try.

I may be completely wrong here, but I feel like constant tattling (and I am talking serial tattling here, like the kid at our swim class who complains when everyone isn't swimming in the right direction.) is sometimes a sign that kids are struggling to understand concepts and develop skills (i.e. Boundaries and problem solving), while the common adult reactions to it (in my case the exasperated brush-off) are often unhelpful in meeting those needs to learn and understand.

I've also noticed that tattle telling has two phases. First as children start to learn about and try to understand the rules and boundaries in place for them, and second as children are learning to navigate social interactions with peers on their own.

In the first phase, the worst tattling offenders always seem to be the children receiving the most verbal correction and direction from the adults around them. Usually because they have the most rules to follow. It's been my experience that these children are often more worried about doing things 'right' then just doing things and having fun. It has also been my experience that this worry extends to everyone around them & they end up mirroring the constant verbal correction they get from adults in the form of tattling.

Am I suggesting that children don't need clear and consistent rules and boundaries? Of coarse not. But maybe they do need less of them, and maybe we as parents could find more creative ways to teach these rules then simply spouting them out every time our children come close to our boundaries. Because if *I* find it ridiculously annoying when children spout rules at each other at every infraction, imagine how annoying it is for Oliver to hear it from me.

In developmental phase two of tattling this constant correction and rule spouting leaves children with few examples or tools to use in social situations with peers. In a difficult situation the only thing a child may know to do is recite an enforceable rule, yet many children have never been granted any authority with which to enforce the rules, nor any leadership or problem solving skills to find solutions and are left with only the option to run straight to the nearest adult.

So basically I have developed a 'nip tattling in the bud before it even starts' plan that involves not only giving my son more freedom from unnecessary rules, but also changing the way I teach him our family rules to promote confidence, decision making and problem solving, and do my best not model rule spouting and telling to him.
Like I said earlier, I am not in any way suggesting that this might actually work. For me it is simply worth the extra effort to ensure I am giving my son the tools and confidence to solve problems in his own way.

1: set up reliable routines 
In eliminating the need to spout out rules and repeat myself over and over again, I have found that most all 'rules' can be replaced painlessly with routines. 'Don't leave your toys out' and 'Wash your hands before you eat' don't really have to be rules if you lead by example and just do them as part of a reliable routine. I have talked about using routine to set boundaries with young children before, and as Oliver grows I find myself relying on them more and more.

Not only do reliable routines allow us to teach good habits and work with our children to learn important skills without conflict or power struggles, they also have the added benefit of giving kids control and confidence. Oliver can and often does initiate several of our routines by himself and has recently started asking us not to help him as he starts to take pride in what he can do for himself.

Does every routine get executed exactly how I would want it to? No. Is Oliver always an enthusiastic participant? No. Does that really matter? Not one bit, It is worth it that he is learning self motivation and ownership/pride of a job well done.
I hope this will help him tackle tough situations on his own in the future, but at the very least I will have avoided modelling to him the kind of 'rule spouting' that tattling seems to mirror. 

2: focus on the feelings
There are some rules that are more serious then a fun routine. In our house they all fall under one of three main rules; respect yourself, respect others, respect your environment. but while things like 'no hitting' are most definitely rules in our house I try my best to avoid simply telling my son not to hit. I much prefer to focus on developing empathy and emotional maturity then having Oliver follow hard and fast rules. In stead of 'No hitting' I am more likely to say 'ouch, Oliver that hurt when you hit me and made me very sad'. I firmly believe that this will help Oliver when he is negotiating difficult situations with peers by giving him the words to stand up for himself and make his feelings known, as well as the empathy and compassion for others.

This can work in a variety of situations positive or negative and is something I try to focus on daily. 'Oliver, it scares me when you jump on the furniture, I don't want you to get hurt' or 'it makes me so proud when you treat your books so nicely'

3: give options and alternatives: 
Instead of constantly correcting a child's behavior with negative words or simply reciting rules, I try to add positive language to the conversation and create an environment where I can say 'yes' more then 'no' to build upon confidence, pride in accomplishment, and model problem solving skills that they can then take with them when they start striking out on their own and interacting with peers.

Instead of 'hang up your coat and put your shoes away' I try 'where would you like to hang your coat? On the hook or in your room?' and then let them do it themselves. Or combine this method with the focus on feelings with 'it scares me when you do that, it's dangerous, would you like to jump on a cushion on the floor instead?'

More open ended options and alternatives can be overwhelming for some children, but they are also a great way to promote creativity and problem solving. 'you and your friend are having trouble sharing that toy. Can you think of something else you can do together?'

Sometimes I hear myself saying these things and I feel silly, especially when the results aren't immediate. But then I think about how amazing it would be to hear Oliver model this type of language instead of tattling and it feels totally worth it.

4: relax and let things go 
Is it really so important to me that Oliver always uses an 'inside voice' when we are inside or always says 'please' and 'thank you'? These are both traits that I would like to teach him of coarse, but is it really worth it to me to interrupt otherwise positive moments to correct his behavior when he doesn't?

Sometimes the 'please' and 'thank-you's are implied by the sweetness of his tone.  Other times they are omitted because he just isn't in a very good mood. Sometimes inside games get really too exciting for an inside voice and sometimes it is necessary to be loud to fully express big emotions.

Either way, it's ok to let the rules go sometimes and just be in that moment as it is. Whether the child notices these letting go moments or not, I still think it is a good skill to model for them. Not everyone is going to have the same rules, not everyone is going to follow them all the time, and in the midst of a happy moment, so long as no one is  getting hurt, there's no need to worry about it.

In the end will these steps help to minimize the tattling in my future? I would like to think so. I would certainly never turn my child away if he came to me for help but giving him the tools to solve his own problems is also very important to me so at the very least I won't need to intervene in every single tiny injustice he perceives and hopefully I can find within myself the patience to approach each tattling as a teaching moment.

What do you think? Have I missed any key elements to tattle telling? Do you have any tips for promoting confidence and problem solving in your children? How do you react when your children tattle on other kids?


mamma claud said... [Reply to comment]

I love the content and totally agree with her. However, she could have spell checked...all the errors distracted me :)

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

I am so sorry for all the mistakes! That's what I get for procrastinating! I will go back and fix them when I get home tonight.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I don't think that I was ever a tattle tale, as I remember hating tattling even as a child! I too was born without much respect for rules or authority. I hope that your methods work! (And please let us know as I will surely put then into place with Sebastian if they do!)

saggyoldclothcatpuss said... [Reply to comment]

I tried to think of something constructive to add to this blog, but all I could come up with was HA HA HA!

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

I've never actually understood why people tell kids automatically to not be a tattle tale. Don't we want kids to speak up when they see something that isn't right? Even if they were told to follow a rule? I mean, if my kid said, "Mom, you told me to wear clothes when I leave the house and Anthony Weiner posted himself in his underwear on the Internet!" I'd be like, "You know, you're right and it's inappropriate behavior for you and our politicians." To some extent it takes courage to say something when you see someone behaving inappropriately towards somebody else - if I was being mugged I'd totally want a stranger to "tattle tale" instead of "mind their own dang business" , so why not empower kids to speak up when community rules are broken? I mean, how much lying, cheating, stealing happens in all businesses and industries and governments because no one speaks up and "tattle tales"? Especially us as common citizens?

Kayce Pearson said... [Reply to comment]

Tara, it's more that there is a fine line before actually talking about breaking rules, and tattling about *every little thing*. "Mom, she walked to her room/went to the bathroom/went up the stairs/opened the door/got a drink/etc" If they are telling about things that actually matter, sure, but the majority of kids don't. From what I've seen, it's just a way to get more attention themselves while trying to get others in trouble for things that aren't actually because they are in trouble.

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

Tara: what Kayce said! I would never turn my child away for being a tattle tale, I would always help.

In my mind 'standing up for what's right' and 'tattling' are two very different things. Telling me that so and so drew on the table (likely by accident) for no other reason then to get them in trouble or seek praise for being the one to follow the rules is not standing up for what's right.... Standing up for what's right means doing the right thing without being so concerned with what everyone else is or isn't doing... If that makes sense? I feel like I couldn't quite get my point across about the difference... I am not sure how to explain it.

Karen T. Smith said... [Reply to comment]

Great post, you made some interesting observations about the tattle tales being those who perhaps already have a lot of adult attention drawn their way in the form of carefully enforced rules. Could be a chicken/egg thing (these kids might *require* that level of intervention to function appropriately in most settings...I know many parents of children on the autism spectrum who talk about how odd their own parenting seems to others in public settings, but how it's a coping strategy to help their child develop the right skills to succed in life.) But still, very interesting things.

On the subject of when to tattle, the author Barbara Coloroso did an excellent job of explaining it in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander, which should be required reading of all parents of children who interact with other children (yeah, meaning son's first experience with bullying was when he was four years old, and it dramatically changed his behavior and personality for weeks until we figured out what was happening and put a stop to it by pulling him from the day camp program.)

She talks about whether telling is to get someone INTO trouble (then you shouldn't tell, that's not a good reason) or get them OUT OF trouble (tell, even if it's just that Jenny sneezed and blew boogers out of her nose all over her hands. She's in trouble and needs a tissue and some hand sanitizer, stat!) *or* if an adult just should know. I'm not doing her explanation justice, but it helped me see more clearly the tattling behavior and helpd me sort it through with my kids.

For what it's worth, you will laugh at yourself in 3-5 (or 8 or 10) years, particularly if your family grows, because who knows what kinds of kids yours will grow up to be? What ways their personality traits will manifest? My daughter has her daddy's spunk and it drives me batshitcrazy on a daily basis, yet I see her stubbornness and stick-to-it-ness as being skills that will come in extraordinarily helpful to her through school and beyond. But because she's stubborn and just. doesn't. let. things. go., she's intensely aware of rules and very willing to inform me of any and all rule violators, particularly when the violator is her older brother. ;) Recognizing it for what it is (her making sense of the world and feeling that the world needs to stay fair/in balance) helps me help her find the right path through (meaning: I have to help her find a way to cope with the fact that life ain't fair. But, at 7, I can't just deliver that line and walk off-stage. There's much more to it than that.)

At any rate, great post and good luck in this and the future journey!

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for the clarification. I guess for me, if a child is "tattling" as a way to get attention, or to get rewarded I'd have to look at a) where did he learn he'd get rewarded for such a thing (since we avoid punishment and rewards in our house) and b) what does he really need that is motivating this behavior? Alfie Kohn makes the point that all kids "misbehavior" has a valid complaint behind it. And also, we work really hard (sometimes its easier said than done) to teach my son to ask for what he needs, so if he's doing something to get attention, we have to look at what's going on in the big picture where he feels like he can't ask for the attention he needs (ie, a recent hitting episode of hitting when he was really tired and still adjusting after the birth of his sister aka busy nest syndrome).

Thanks for sharing! As always, plenty of food for thought!

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