“I Don’t Want to Be a Tattletale”

 by Kyle Steele

Navigating social conflicts is difficult for anyone, so it is especially difficult for children. We are not born with social graces, they have to be learned. That means children’s feelings are hurt easily, and finding the words to express their feelings is hard.

One of my great pleasures as a teacher is advising and guiding my students in the resolution of their conflicts. But I can only do that if they ask for help, and there is something that often stands in the way: the fear of being a “tattletale.”

This fear is based on a misunderstanding of what it means to tattle. Nearly all children think that “tattling” is synonymous with telling the teacher about a problem. To them, telling the teacher means getting another child in trouble. For many social issues, this is the last thing a child wants to do. It feels like a betrayal of the friendship, and they’d rather settle things on their own. At VanDamme Academy, we try to help students distinguish among three goals they might have in going to a teacher: asking for intervention, asking for advice, and tattling.

Asking for intervention – This covers the most serious problems children face. If another child is deliberately mean or is clearly breaking the rules in a way that hurts someone else, it is perfectly acceptable for students to ask for intervention. In fact, we require it. If the situation is so serious that we would not expect a child to handle it on his own, he needs to go to an adult for help. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often.

Asking for advice – This is the category that most children don’t know about. They don’t know that they can go to a teacher and say, “I need some help,” or, “I need some advice.” For the teachers at VanDamme Academy, this is a special kind of code. When children say this, we know that they don’t want to get anyone in trouble; they just don’t know what to do and need advice. When we hear these magic phrases, we get the details of the problem and coach the child without stepping in directly.

Tattling – We use this term to describe any time one student tells on another without “standing,” i.e. they are telling on another student when that child’s behavior has no impact on them. “Jimmy’s doodling,” or, “I heard Jessica say a bad word,” or things like that. We generally discourage students from doing this, not because the behavior doesn’t need to be corrected, but because it’s not healthy for one student to seem himself as the policeman of the class, always watching for misbehavior.

When students understand the differences among these categories, especially the difference between asking for advice and tattling, any resistance they might have to talking to a teacher dissolves and we have more opportunities to lend a hand. When they don’t know what their options are, they might go days or weeks without talking to someone about a problem until the issue has grown from a small dispute to contempt. By that point, memories are fuzzy and it’s harder to get everyone to listen and see eye to eye.

It’s hard enough for children to learn how to communicate effectively with other children. We adults should do everything we can to make communication with grown-ups as easy as possible. Sometimes that means we have to be amateur mind readers to figure out what’s behind their words and feelings. Other times it means teaching them the words to express exactly what they are feeling. Learning the phrase “I need some advice” and when to use it is one of the best lessons any child can learn.

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