My son W has a best friend. We’ll call him E. E and W play one to two times a week together. E’s mom and I trade off watching the other’s children, so the boys see each other a lot. Because they are 4, they are at an age where they don’t need a lot of supervision – just checking in now and then and listening for screams. But, there’s one thing that drives me crazy when E is at our house. He tattles. A lot.
Most parents tell their kids not to tattle, but then they reward tattling by getting involved in the situation. I’ve realized that my son, though he has other faults, does not tattle. The reason, as far as I can see, is that I don’t punish. When something happens, and someone does something “wrong,” I (usually) problem-solve. This gives the kids a model for how to deal with their own problems, instead of having to bring in an adult to solve the problem for them. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Sharing is always hard, and is often an area that parents come in to referee, hand out a solution, and force the kids to abide by it. So, when E wants a toy that W is playing with, and W says “NO!”, E comes to me and says, “He’s not sharing.” He is used to having the adult in his life jump in, and make the other child share. But, that’s not what I do. Instead, I walk them through a problem solving process:
“Hmm, there’s one toy that two boys want to play with. How can we solve that problem?” If they don’t come up with ideas, I offer some. “Is there a way to play with it together?” “Is there another toy that E can play with while W plays with this one?” Once I say a couple of things, they often jump in with their own ideas. Usually, it’s that W will give E the toy once he’s done. It’s actually a very quick process at this point.
Another situation is when someone gets hurt. I have noticed that when a child starts crying (usually a little sister), and I walk in the room, E’s first reaction is “W did it!” Most parents begin by trying to figure out who hurt the crying child. They start by asking who’s to blame and then punishing that person. Instead, I say, “I’m not here for you boys, I’m here to help the baby. She’s sad so I’m going to help her feel better.” Then I proceed to comfort the crying child. Then, once she’s okay, I ask “What made D sad?” The question is centered around the hurt child, not around who did the hurting. Often, the truth comes out quickly because I am not asking angrily nor will the person who hurt the baby get “in trouble.” In fact, we tell friends who visit our house that no one gets in trouble here. Instead, we solve problems.
Once we find out what happens, I guide the child who did the deed through a process of restitution. First, what did they want that led to the bad decision? Was the baby grabbing his toy and he pushed her? So, what could he have done instead? What kind words could he have said? How could he have solved that problem with kind hands? Perhaps finding another similar toy for her to play with? Now that we have that figured out (and, perhaps we practice saying or doing that thing), then it’s his job to restore the relationship. Or, as we say, “Fix things.” And, how he does that is up to him. Perhaps he says “sorry.” Perhaps he gives her a hug or a kiss. Perhaps he gives her a toy. Then, I point out how happy that action made her, and I tell him how much I love him. The end. No time outs. No spankings. No resentment. Just modeling problem solving and restoring a broken relationship.
If you’d prefer to have a tattle tale, don’t do these things. Instead, blame children for acting like children, punish the wrong-doer, and jump in to solve all of your child’s problems for him. It might be easier in the short run, but you are paving a road that will lead to years of tattling. Because until kids know how to solve problems, they will ALWAYS need you to do it for them. We can’t expect kids to not tattle if we also don’t help them how to work it out on their own.