Should Tattling Be Discouraged?

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Apr 13, 2018

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It starts happening around age 3. Suddenly, kids are carrying stories to you about their siblings’ and friends’ misdeeds — probably often minor misdeeds that you’d rather not have to deal with, but you have to now that it’s been brought to your attention. So, to stem the flow (and make sure your kid has friends in the future) you tell your preschooler don’t be a tattletale. It isn’t nice.

The problem is, kids at that age aren’t tattling to be mean. Or to lie. And, as a new study has found, they’re not usually tattling to protect themselves.

In the study, 32 3-year-olds individually watched a puppet harm another puppet in various ways (e.g., by destroying the other puppet’s artwork). They also watched neutral scenarios, in which the first puppet destroyed a neutral object. The scenarios were set up so that the child could not be blamed for the destruction — the objects were kept in a locked box to which only the puppets had the key — but there was still ambiguity in responsibility, as the second puppet remained.

A significantly greater number of children tattled in the harmful scenario, than tattled in the neutral situation, suggesting to researchers that the children were motivated more by a desire to reinforce social norms than by self-protection. Indeed, the research team even controlled for hints of self-motivated tattling, and prepared to eliminate phrases like “It wasn’t me” and “I didn’t do it” from the results; however, no child tattled in that way.

Small children tattle to reinforce what they understand to be right and wrong, the researchers concluded, which bears up the consensus of the small body of research into tattling behavior to date. But what this means for parents is that our instinct to tell kids not to tattle might be sending mixed messages.

It’s a difference most kids figure out eventually on the way to adulthood, but aside from possibly making right and wrong more difficult to sort out, telling kids not to be a tattletale may have another unintended consequence: It introduces the idea that parents don’t want to hear their problems. As Po Bronson has reported for New York Magazine:

By the middle years of elementary school, a tattler is about the worst thing a kid can be called on the playground. So a child considering reporting a problem to an adult not only faces peer condemnation as a traitor but also recalls the reprimand “Work it out on your own.” Each year, the problems they deal with grow exponentially. They watch other kids cut class, vandalize walls, and shoplift. To tattle is to act like a little kid. Keeping their mouth shut is easy; they’ve been encouraged to do so since they were little.

The era of holding back information from parents has begun.

Bronson goes on to argue that this withholding is a precursor to lying. And whether or not that’s true, withholding is certainly indicative of a less-than-open parent-child relationship — which, as he says, may not matter so much in younger years, but certainly does by the time adolescence rolls around: An open and supportive relationship with parents is a strong predictor of positive health and academic outcomes among teens.

So while tattling may not be particularly nice, should it be discouraged? Difficult to say. Perhaps the best path is the middle ground, where the concept of ‘tattling’ isn’t introduced at all, and parents say what they mean: “You’re correct — that was wrong. What are you going to do about it?”

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

See all articles by Liesl

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