Telling Isn’t Always Tattling – How Speaking Up Empowers Children

Telling isn’t always the trademark of a troublemaker. Sometimes it’s just a kid’s way of saying “I have no idea how to handle this”. Ignoring or reprimanding the act of telling just makes learning social skills and relationship building that much harder.

We know kids need a teacher for math and reading. Well, social skills are one of the most valuable skills we can learn and too often kids are left to figure it out for themselves. Because they’ve been silenced with “don’t tell” which translates into ”Don’t bring me your problems. Don’t speak up.”

It’s like an early indoctrination into conformity. I’ve been the parent who tells their kid to not tattle and go work it out. But, then I’ll notice their friend won’t do their part to work anything out. Instead, they’ll manipulate their way out of trouble by telling my kid, “Well you can’t tell. That’s tattling.” Too many kids care more about staying out of trouble than working things out.

Eventually, as kids get older, they might reason, “Well, I can’t tell, and I can’t work it out with the source, so I’ll find friends who will listen to me.” And what does that eventually look like?

Perhaps, the adult who gossips was once a kid who was looking for friends who will listen. Perhaps, the employee who complains about deserving a raise instead of just telling their employer is the same. If they learned to speak up instead of “don’t tell”, then maybe they’d make change happen.

What I’ve learned about resorting to “Don’t tell. Work it out yourself” is that it allows me to get the easy job of staying out of it while my kid slowly develops into a promising pushover. We want kids to learn how to resolve problems on their own, but do they really understand which problem needs solving? Because it seems like the problem many are focusing on is – how can I stay out of trouble? 

The pushover has learned to stay out of trouble through silence. The bully has learned to stay out of trouble by using the social faux pas of tattling to his advantage. One way out of these toxic behaviors is to stop the blame game. Because blame seems to lead to the fear reflex. And all kids fear getting into trouble.

I wish we could take the focus off of the trouble, the punishment, and the tattle-tale label and focus on teaching the rewards found in meaningful relationships. Rewards that come as a result of learning self-respect, empathy, forgiveness, and honest communication – things I’m still learning as an adult. Things I wish I had a better understanding of a long time ago.

When I was a kid, I just wanted to stay out of trouble. Punishment was scary. The fear reflex was like a survival method in my mind.  But, survival isn’t the same as LIVING. A life lived involves facing challenges and finding meaning and understanding in the process, not the result. The association kids make between telling and trouble-making seems to lead to fear-based decision making. In which case, the only thing they’re finding meaning in is avoiding a certain consequence.

Maybe an association between telling and learning needs to be established instead. Because if I’m willing to help my kid sound out a word when he’s stuck reading, then I should be willing to help him work through a social problem as well without brushing him off as a tattle-tale. I know all kids need to learn independent problem-solving, but they’ll feel even more empowered if they also learn how to speak up and get support if they need it.

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