Nobody Likes a Tattletale But…

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It is one of the few moments I remember from kindergarten. I stood in the seafoam green hallway with the rest of my class as we gathered to attend an assembly.  Susie or Cindy or Mary curved her small hand around her mouth and whispered into my ear “Tell Mrs. Duane that John and Steve were talking during prayers”  I turned toward my teacher, her black hair curled around soft milky skin.

“John and Steve were talking during prayers,” I blurted.

She looked down at me, pink matte lipstick spread on her thin lips.

“Don’t be a tattletale,” she said.

I’m honestly embarrassed when I think of this memory.  Sure, it was all what’s-her-name’s idea but I was all too eager to oblige.

I’d like to think this was a rare occurrence, that the times I tattled as a child were few and far between. And I do think that is possible as I was always taught not to tattle by my parents.  I grew up knowing a tattletale was something I never wanted to be.  So much so that I’m still ashamed of five-year-old me ratting out little John and Steve.

I always assumed once I became a mother, I would pass on this aversion to tattling to my children.  So far, though, as a parent, I am finding tattling to be much more of a gray area than I thought.

Nix the Snitch

Let’s be honest. Nobody likes a tattletale.  Tattling done for the sake of tattling is simply unkind.  And on the list of qualities I hope to instill in my daughter, kindness resides at the top.  Why, therefore, would I ever teach her to do something I see as mean?  Why would I want her to tattle on her classmates just to get them in trouble as I did to John and Steve?  I wouldn’t.  I don’t.  I don’t want her to do something that hurts others just for the sake of doing it.

Tattling isn’t just a childhood act either.  As an adult, I have worked among tattletales.  I was once ratted out to my bosses by a man twenty years my senior.  And I assure you there was no reason for this tattling.  It did not help the situation.  I had not done anything malicious or unethical.  An honest mistake had been made. He believed it was mine; I believed it was his.  Either way, it could have been easily rectified between coworkers with no repercussions. Yet, this man felt the need to tell both our bosses.  It was tattling in its truest form and I thought it was reprehensible behavior.  I didn’t hold a grudge or treat him differently, but my opinion of him did change.  I just didn’t think he was very nice anymore.

I certainly do not want my daughter to be like him.  I don’t want her to find satisfaction in causing others trouble.  Isn’t that what tattletales do?

A Time to Tattle

No, I do not want Rosemarie to be a tattletale, but there are times when I think I would want her to tattle.

If a classmate repeatedly singles out Rosemarie, takes her toys or makes fun of her, wouldn’t I want her to tell the teacher?  As a former teacher myself, I know it is hard to see everything that goes on in a classroom.  I know it is quite possible that a student can be mistreated or even bullied without the teacher witnessing the behavior.  How else is the teacher sure to know, then, unless I tell Rosie it’s okay to tell her?

Beyond possible issues with her peers, there are other scenarios in which I would want Rosemarie to tattle.  We live in a scary world with dangers around our children that are simply unspeakable.  God forbid my daughter ever falls victim to a predator of any kind, I want her to know that not only may she tattle on this person but she must do so.

And there is also the issue that I do not want to discourage Rosemarie from sharing information with me, any information.  I want my daughter to feel comfortable talking to me.  I want her to know she can tell me things that are troubling her.  I want her to know no matter what she tells me, I will still love her.

And, yet, a few months ago after playing with her cousins, she ran up to me to tell me about something one of them had done.  Maybe her cousin took a toy; maybe she wouldn’t give her a turn on the iPad.  I don’t know what it was because when she began to speak to me and I heard her utter her cousin’s name, I quickly cut her off with “No tattling, Rosie.”

As she walked away from me, I was immediately guilty.  She had tried to tell me something and I didn’t listen.  She had tried to share something that was bothering her, and I shut her mouth instead of opening my ears.

I learned from this moment and I will not do the same again but, in essence, if I teach her tattling is wrong, aren’t I telling her it is wrong to tell me certain things? Aren’t I already teaching her that she cannot tell me anything, an idea that is the very opposite of that which I want her to believe?

A few weeks ago a friend posted a quote on Facebook that caught my eye:


I can’t say it any better than that.   If I agree with Wallace, and I do, I need to listen to my daughter no matter what it is she wants to say.



As I said, for me, tattling has become a gray area and I am trying to find ways to address it that are appropriate.  When Rosemarie approaches me now to tell me that a friend hit or or pushed her, I start by asking if she is okay.  Once she says yes, I sometimes simply say “Good, I’m glad.”  Other times, I might mention that we need not tattle unless we need help.  I’m trying to simultaneously instill in her that she can tell me anything while also teaching her that tattling shouldn’t be done without a reason.  Maybe I’m just confusing her instead.  I’m not sure.

I try also to explain when tattling is necessary and when it isn’t.  I tell Rosemarie I need to know if someone’s hurting her or mistreating her or anyone else for that matter.  But I don’t need to know that Dina drew on her hand with a marker or that Michael ate one too many cookies.  In truth, Rosemarie is too young to tell the difference at this point, but maybe if I start now, she’ll get it by the time she is old enough.

I’m not sure if I’m doing it right just yet.  So much of parenting is trial and error after all and I suppose we shall see.  I do intend in some way to teach Rosie when it is right to “tattle” and when it is time to mind her business.  Learning to the tell the difference will be a valuable skill to have as she grows.

What about you?

What is your take on tattling?

How do you address the issue with your kids?