How Our Family Handles Tattling

How do we deal with tattle-taleing?

This post is a request, in response to that question. At first sit-down in front of the keyboard, I don't have a whole lot to say, except to lay down our pretty succinct philosophy o' tattling. If you find that there's not much meat on the bone, or that you wish there were a little more practical advice, you can either be satisfied with this snack, or email me and ask for more.

And who knows? I'm just getting this post started, I might find that I have a whole lot to say.

By the grace of God we have five children. The oldest is a ten-year-old girl who adores her 8-year-old brother, is of a cheerful and helpful disposition, and is seldom in competition with her siblings. The youngest is a bright and bubbly baby girl of seven months. Neither one of them tattles much or has a problem with tattling.

Then there are the three boys, ages 8, 7, and 5.

They are always competing, both against each other and for each other's attention. They always play together, but are forever either pushing away or pestering each other. And they, of course, tattle on each other.

Still, tattling isn't a big problem in our household. And I believe that a few active things we do help with that.

Lest you think we think we're something, I will tell you from experience that the suppression of tattling leads to the exploration of other avenues for the oppressed masses to speak their truth to power. A more assertive child will occasionally fight it out with the sibling who is annoying him. The more ninja child will attempt to whine at the annoyer loudly enough to either involve parents or make the other kid try to make sure parents don't get involve.

Still, I find both those reactions far preferable to straight tattling, and easier to mold toward more Christ-like behavior. No good comes from tattling.

All the children know that tattling is not allowed. Although that's an acknowledged household rule, we haven't had to address the issue openly for years. There are quite a few things we had to blast the older kids with that just sort of got transmitted down the line through sibling-osmosis. When child four comes running down the stairs and child two and three follow him down saying with calm confidence "There's no tattling", child four is likely to accept this truth as simply the way of the world.

But the reader will ask, how is bullying prevented if the parents turn a deaf ear to the plaints of the younger oppressed brothers? Doesn't "no tattling" mean that the kids will get away with anything done out of parental eye-shot? And what about safety? Don't I want Jimmy to tell me when Johnny is trying to jump off the roof?

These complications are the reason many parents don't enforce any rules at all when it comes to tattling. The other temptation, and probably the more common one among readers of this blog, will be to let laws abound. Section IV of the household rules being no tattling, IV.a. is soon added stipulating that all dangerous activity is to be reported immediately, IV.b. that if anyone hits anyone else said fisticuffs will be an exception to tattling, and so on even unto the formulation of section IV.c.3.a., which stipulates that all children who witness Susie trying to find the candy stash will immediately report it to mom.

This will get you in trouble. Where the law abounds, there sin abounds. You'll be disciplining your kids a lot. That is, until you get tired and throw out the lawbook, or just as likely, until your kids figure out all the loopholes that this profusion of rules create. As you've probably already figured out, your kids are better lawyers than you are.

We try to have as few rules as possible in our house. The only rule we have regarding tattling is "no tattling". The wife and I then put the burden on ourselves to enforce the rule with wisdom, justice, and mercy. All the kids have to worry about is "no tattling". We have given them one principle by which to tell if they are tattling or not, and have given ourselves several to help us judge well.

Here are those principles. First, the one for the kids. Then, those for us.

1. "Are you trying to help your sibling, or get him in trouble?" We usually know the answer to that one, so it's our way of letting the child know they've tattled. But this is not a rhetorical question. We make the child answer, then send them back to their sibling to apologize for tattling, or for being mean, or for being a bully.

2. Disciplining the tattler: be a judge. Sometimes we punish the tattler, sometimes we don't. How is this sort of inconsistency helpful at all? Well, it's not inconsistency. We never punish for tattling! We do, however, often discipline our children for meanness, cruelty, lying, or bullying. We are very explicit about this. "Are you trying to help your sibling, or get him in trouble?" is shortly followed by "Well, you're going to be punished for being cruel to your sibling."

This is a spot where we put the burden on ourselves. We judge whether the child was being wantonly malicious, or carelessly malicious. We decide if it warrants discipline. We are careful to define the sin, and discipline that. This helps to build a family atmosphere where the weak (here the weaker of tongue, or simply those with a less vicious streak) feel protected and vindicated.

3. Let the sin of the tattled-upon go. Oh, no, here's another inconsistency! If your child is disobeying on a scale or in a style the non-punishment of which would result in the disintegration of your family's fabric, your being told about it won't be tattling. How's that? "Are you trying to help your sibling, or get him in trouble?" If it's that big a deal, then the kid who told you has clean hands.

Still, the more common problem is that one child will come to you a-tattling, and lo and behold, your other child is indeed engaged is some venial sin that is truly a sin. What then?

You have to be willing to let it pass. At most we will address the denounced child in scoldful tones, telling him he ought to be ashamed, and turn to address the tattling. This places tattling high on the list of sins in the children's own minds. Tattling, it turns out, is worse than Jimmy bashing Johnny on the head with a toy train. Tattling must be pretty bad. It also helps suppress lawyering, a very unattractive characteristic in any child.

One of the biggest hang-ups parents have in dealing with tattling is with the consequence of letting the sin of the tattled-upon go. Dad and mom don't like that the older kids always get their way, that young Tertius and Quintus never get to play with the cool toys or make up any of the games. In partial response to that I say that often that's okay. We can be obsessed with fairness, but we shouldn't be. The children of our household all know that there's no such thing as fairness in our house: there is justice. Yes. I've said those very words. The kids will have some weird stories about me when they're grown.

Still, there is genuine reason for concern. Injustice often reigns in the dark recesses of children's upstairs bedrooms, where older brother uses force and guile to ensure that it is always he who has Iron Man, even when younger brother started out the playing session with Iron Man in his hands. If there is no tattling, and no addressing the injustice, what is an oppressed child to do? Let's not put it on the kid. There are two things you should do.

4. Listen and be pro-active. Be aware of the dynamics in your children's interactions. Head off trouble at the pass. Remind them that Johnny gets to play with Iron Man this time. Listen to them talking. Listen to them shout and complain and whine. Get there early, before a whine can turn to a tattle. Put the responsibility for good play in the hands of your older kids, and charge them for it.

5. Teach your kids how to not tattle. Earlier we talked about meanness and cruelty. This is where "Are you trying to help your sibling, or get him in trouble?" helps once more. Teach your child how to frame things. There's a big difference between "Tertius stole Iron Man from me!" and "Tertius has been playing with Iron Man, can I have a turn now?" Teach them not to accuse (yes, even if they actually are), it will help them not to be mean. There's a tattly and a non-tattly way to say "I started out with Iron Man, but now Tertius has it".

That is, train your child to help you create an atmosphere where justice can be done.

I hope these are helpful. I certainly would not mind hearing from people, how they've handled certain things, what triumphs and defeats they've faced. You know how to reach me!