Thursday, August 10, 2006


The Tattletale Taboo

How do you explain the tattletale taboo in terms that a 5 year old can understand?

The Boy asked me recently why he shouldn’t tell us or his teacher when his friends are doing something bad. I tried to distinguish between ‘really’ bad (hurting someone) and ‘kinda’ bad (making faces), but he didn’t get it and I didn’t want to undermine any hope of ever enforcing any rules ever again.

Tattling is in the eye of the beholder. Yesterday, while I was at work, The Wife took TB and The Girl to a nearby lake, along with another Mom and some friends of TB’s. TB spat some lake water at his friend, who complained to her mother and TW. TW was glad that the friend complained, so she could reprimand TB. The friend’s mother reprimanded the friend for tattling. But if she hadn’t tattled, TB would have gotten away with unacceptable behavior. What the friend’s Mom took as tattling, we took as useful reportage.

The funny thing about the tattletale taboo is that it gets harder to explain, the more you look at it. It isn’t just about group loyalty, since the taboo applies even in very transient, anonymous groups. It isn’t just about friend loyalty, since I know I’ve withheld saying anything when witnessing total strangers do things they shouldn’t.

I don’t want TB (or TG, when she gets old enough) to be a whiner, incapable of handling the normal stresses of everyday life. But I don’t want him to tolerate truly awful stuff, either, since if you do that long enough, you start to think it’s because you deserve it. How do you teach “deal with it” and “don’t stand for it!” at the same time?

My parents said that the difference was that you were tattling if the whole point was to get the other person in trouble, and not tattling if you genuinely needed an adult's help in dealing with a situation. Which... yeah, that's confusing too ;).
Honestly, I never understood why the tattletale taboo should be observed. It merely seems like a way to enable bullies.
Good rule: it is NOT tattling if (1) the behavior is directed against you (anyone who has lake water spit at him SHOULD tell a parent) or (2) you are reporting or preventing harm to someone else. Other cases where no harm is done to the potential reporter ("Jimmy is making faces out the window") = tattling.

Luckily the tattle phase doesn't last long. If it does, the kid likely will grow up to be in law enforcement.
I think that part of the taboo though is also about teaching independence. The issue with tattling most of the time if I recall is that the kid who is labeled a tattle-tale is always running to tell on somebody for every little thing, rather than actually standing up for him/herself. Think about images of this that we see in media - it's always the little brother or sister who is the tattle-tale, and it's because the little sibling feels left out and wants to annoy the older sibling in retaliation. Which I guess brings us back to Annie's distinction, which I think is a good one.
Good question!

I think the distinction of harm is a good one - preventing harm to oneself or someone else isn't tattling, but tattling for the sake of getting someone in trouble is acceptable.

I find the same problem circular arguments all over parenting. If we ask Simon "Did you do this?" and he tells the truth, he gets punished, but if he says no (and we believe him) he gets rewarded for lying. If the boys finally learn to use their nice voices to ask for something they still aren't allowed to have, there's no reinforcement of using the nice voice (i.e. no matter how politely you ask, you still can't stay up past your bedtime.)

Ugh. This parenting crap is much harder than it looks!!
Ack! That should have read: Tattling for the sake of getting someone in trouble is NOT acceptable.

Malcolm Gladwell reviewing Charles Tilly. I won't try to explain it, but here's a short excerpt:

>>Timothy has heard that phrase—“Don’t be a tattletale”—countless times, and it always stops him short. He has offered his mother an eyewitness account of a crime. His mother, furthermore, in no way disputes the truth of his story. Yet what does she do? She rejects it in favor of a simplistic social formula: Don’t be a tattletale. It makes no sense. Timothy’s mother would never use such a formula to trump a story if she were talking to his father. On the contrary, his mother and father tattle to each other about Geoffrey all the time. And, if Timothy were to tattle on Geoffrey to his best friend, Bruce, Bruce wouldn’t reject the story in favor of a formula, either. Narratives are the basis of Timothy’s friendship with Bruce. They explain not just effects but causes. They matter—except in this instance, of a story told by Timothy to Mommy about Geoffrey, in which Mommy is suddenly indifferent to stories altogether. What is this don’t-be-a-tattletale business about?
That is definitely a tough question and one that, I’m sure, has plagued parents everywhere for generations. But I think Annie’s parents got it right.

Maybe the other mom could have acknowledged that it was ok for her daughter to report, while still making it clear that it wasn’t a major deal. For instance, she could have said something like, “All right, let me wipe your face. But you can calm down now, there’s no permanent damage.” So, if the daughter needed help, then it was okay to go to a grownup. In the case of making faces, no help is needed.

But I’m not sure I understand. Were the kids swimming in the lake? If so, then your son just spat water onto an already wet face. I’m not sure that required a reprimand. The girl could have done the same to him and they could have had a great time with a water spitting game – who could spit the farthest, etc. If, otoh, he spit water into the face of someone merely standing by a lake in playclothes, that would be an instance of help being required.

There are times kids can walk away (“I’m not playing with you, anymore.”) or retaliate in a like manner. But, if they need help for any reason, then it’s all right to get it from a grownup.

When the issue is a grownup one to begin with, then it’s a matter of when do you notify someone in authority? Is someone being hurt by behavior that is witnessed? Is a crime being committed? I think we might be more apt to call a manager or the police if it is an individual rather than an impersonal company that is the victim. The degree to which we see someone being harmed probably affects the degree to which we are willing to be involved.

I’m sure there are even more factors, as well. And, man, all of those gray areas are enough to make you crazy. This parenting thing is tough, huh?
I think the tattletale taboo leads to some really dangerous situations. I see it with college first year students, who think they have to "cover" for each other. That means they are slow to call 911 in cases of alchohol poisioning. All kinds of really dangerous behavior does not get reported because of this code of loyalty they have learned since childhood.

I never told my kids not to tattle. I always told the tattletale taboo was stupid and could be harmful. I always ecouraged them to ask an adult for help if it was something they couldn't handle. So if one of my kids came to me about something minor, I might say, "Oh, I don't think you need me for that. I think you can handle that on your own," but I would never scold the kid for tattling.

None of my kids grew up to be whiners.
Keep in mind that "Don't be a tattletale" could also stand for, "Please stop involving me in your tiniest personal disputes and resolve things yourself, for I am tired."
I'm with Kimmit. The tattletale taboo isn't about the kids at all. It's about prosecutorial discretion. We don't want to deal with jaywalking and public urination, we want only murder cases. Since most kid disputes are about public urination, it grates on us.
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