Telling Isn’t Tattling: The Hidden Message Behind This Damaging Label

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tattletaleWhen my eldest was in first grade, his teacher spoke with me at a parent-teacher conference about her frustration with his tendency to tell her all his classroom problems. She labeled this as “tattling” on the other children and felt that he should have been figuring it out among his friends independently. In other words, he would learn a lot from “Going back into the melée and taking his lumps.”

I remember having a very visceral reaction to this. My feelings went from, “Is this the Wild West?” to “Does it really have to get to melée status?” To an indignant, “I don’t want a ‘lumpy’ first grader!” (I mean, she was talking emotional lumps, but STILL, it didn’t make sense). My son was just a little guy. There were certain social nuances and subtleties that he didn’t understand (given his emotional struggles).

I very much felt that he had the right to ask for help! I thought it was a little early on in life for the feeling of being thrown into the deep end of the pool to see if he would sink or swim.

Now, I am not talking about the little minor things, mind you. I’m talking about the big stuff. There are many cultural and social norms that children are still learning to navigate at such an age. It seems right for them to ask for guidance and have resolutions modeled for them that they can then use as an anchor point for developing their own solutions.

I have always believed that children should “talk to a grownup” when they encounter something that feels difficult to sort out. I have actually encouraged it. Presenting a child with this structure sends the message from a very young age that it is all right to ask for assistance. I don’t believe that it supersedes their own decision-making process. On the contrary, I feel that it shows them how to take apart a problem and better identify solutions.

It bothers me a lot when I hear the words, “Stop tattling.” It sends a message to children that can turn a request for help into a judgment upon them for seeking that help.

It leaves children in the confusing position of having to sort through when they ask for assistance and whether it is right to ask for help. Sometimes reinforcing the sense that they must do so alone (because it’s a mark against them otherwise). I worry that the refrain of “Don’t tattle” becomes intrinsically integrated as, “I’m going to be judged negatively if I bring this up, so maybe I shouldn’t!” Which leaves them holding the bag in the end.

Of course, as kids get older, they are expected to resolve issues independently and use their growing reason and maturity to figure out practical solutions to problems. But some situations can feel complicated or embarrassing to children, and as they grow, they developmentally lose the desire to share things with their parents and tell their struggles to their friends instead. This is a natural progression, but the weight of feeling judged still exists whether they are disclosing to a parent or a friend.

If we teach our children that bringing forth information that they are wrestling with internally is a negative thing, will they feel as free to open up?

Are we leaving them with the sense that they should bear the burden of weighing whether to get help because they’ll be poorly evaluated if they do so? I fear that this leads to the burden of silence. What are the consequences of that?

My daughter was recently at a birthday party where a handful of girls from her school took it upon themselves to come up to her and tell her that they were better than her at ice skating. Then continually asking her whether she was aware of that. This happened throughout the party, and my daughter managed it herself with verbal comebacks.

But when I came to pick her up, she spoke with me about how awful it made her feel and how much it bothered her that they kept making it a point to put her down. I asked why she didn’t tell the parents hosting the party, as I know they absolutely would have interceded to help. Her response was, “Well, I thought they would feel like I was tattling, and it would make a big deal and spoil the party.”

I was flabbergasted that this was her impression and that getting help in this instance was viewed as a possible negative judgment on her instead of on the girls doing the bullying. I was sorry that she had sat with that internal conflict the whole duration of the party instead of just speaking up the moment it was happening. Instead, she was busy wrestling with herself to see if she was appropriate by saying anything at all.

This is the type of thinking that scares me. I don’t want my children to ever have a moment’s hesitation in seeking help to think through a situation.

Lord knows I am a full-grown mother of three who still needs to go to the various pillars in my life to talk through conflicts or issues that I am dealing with. Why should children have to have it together and deal with everything on their own?

Most people hope that, as their children grow up and individuate, they will bring their problems to their parents or other trusted adults as a way of sharing the burden and not feeling completely alone in the process if that is the message from the beginning, if the resounding affirmation is, “Yes! You can bring me your problems, and I will listen without judging and guide you in figuring out the most comfortable solution.” THEY ACTUALLY DO THAT, then why is that not a job well done?

Children should know that they don’t have to question the need for help and that it is not shameful to get help, even if there are implications for someone else.

The balance that must be struck is that they don’t sacrifice themselves on the altar of social appropriateness and stay silent when they shouldn’t benefit from someone else, but that they are also judicious in the use of that voice because words have power. My children know that when they bring up an issue, they do it from the truth of their perspective, and we figure out together which direction to take from there.

“Telling” is truly a complex issue with all sorts of difficult influences and perspectives layered into it. In recent months, it has been a topic of conversation that has become much more complicated, one that has been at the forefront of significant social discussions about telling one’s story and being believed.

The value of having a voice, especially beginning at a young age, is a crucial investment that provides a counterpoint to fear. “Telling” should cease being used interchangeably with “tattling” because that label changes everything.

Let’s instead encourage our children to learn to use their discretion to talk about what they deem important, and let’s place value in what they are saying. And for goodness’ sake, if they ask for help, why in the world would we judge that and diminish them for it? Let’s think about the messages in our communications to our children, especially during their most vulnerable and formative years.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!

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May Hwa-Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She interned at Rolling Stone Magazine and Elle Magazine in college, and was a freelance editorial assistant at Family Life Magazine. With a Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and a Master’s Degree from Stanford University in Literature, May explored editorial life in NYC, but moved towards a teaching career instead, which led to a teaching certification in secondary education and the eventual achievement of a second Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver. As a licensed clinical social worker, May has practiced psychotherapy for nearly seventeen years in multiple settings, from substance abuse clinics in hospitals to community mental health centers, finally finding her passion working with families in a school for severely emotionally disabled children in Westchester County. She is married to a self-proclaimed red neck from Colorado and has three children, who are the beloved centers of chaos in her life. Formerly a ballet dancer and musician for over 20 years, she now does Zumba to keep her joints from locking up and is an avid cheer-soccer-tae kwon do-music-art-dance mom. Her husband regularly begs her to stop volunteering to run more activities, but she never listens to red necks.