Here’s a parenting question: Do you know what we can do right now to empower our kids, help prevent sexual abuse, hinder bullies, put criminals behind bars and foster corporate and organizational transparency?
The Answer: We have to stop punishing our tattletales.
A Little Background
I spend most of my afternoons watching the neighborhood kids play in the common area of our condominium complex. My son is only four years old, and like most four-year-olds, he shouldn’t be allowed to play in an open area without at least one adult there to supervise him. I don’t manage his play or boss him around – I’m just there to make sure he doesn’t try to teach the cat to ride a skateboard or climb the tree with pencil-thin branches. Basically, my job is to monitor.
Enter: The Tattletale. Every day, at least once, one of the kids (ages 3-12) comes up to me and tattles on my son or one of the other kids: “He called me a name.” “She won’t share.” “He’s crying.” “They were hitting.” The kids tell me because they need my help to solve a problem. It is my job as a parent and an adult to get to the root of the problem, so the kids get back to the business of playing.
What makes me different from many other parents? I refuse to punish the messenger. I simply can’t shame a child for coming to me and reporting wrongdoing. I thank them for trusting me enough to tell me the truth and reporting bad behavior.
These kids – the tattlers – aren’t lying. They aren’t “setting up” their peers. They just want to play and they don’t want naughty behavior to ruin it. Kids just want their peers to know that everyone needs to be nice, behave in a positive manner, and cooperate. These kids – the tattlers – are setting the bar, and setting it high. And they are being transparent about it.
It goes against everything I believe to tell a tattler, “Both of you are in trouble: Little Johnny for hitting and little Sally for telling.”
Why? Because when we punish tattletales, we are teaching our children to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. We are teaching them that reporting wrongdoing is just as bad as committing the crime.
In fact, I don’t call it tattling anymore. I call it “mandatory reporting.”
Tattling Isn’t Bad
I have asked a couple of adults I know why they punish their tattletales. I make sure to stress that the tattletale is telling the truth and just wants to report behavior that is wrong. Their response: “Because tattling is wrong. No one likes a tattletale.”
So the rationale becomes: if you report wrongdoing, no one will like you.
Is that what we want our kids to take into adulthood?
In fact, I know firsthand that the opposite is true. When my son plays with the local “mandatory reporter,” everyone plays nicely because they know that bad behavior will be punished. There are no secrets and no ultimatums (“Do as I say or I’ll tell”) because if there is bad behavior, someone is going to tell an adult. Period. No bargaining allowed.
Even better, the mandatory reporter in our neighborhood is spunky, funny, popular and nice. She’s a good, smart, moral kid who can talk easily to children and adults. Everyone likes her. Especially me.
And I don’t think she should be punished for letting me know that I need to intervene. That’s why I am there. It’s my job to help the kids.
Transparency Protects Kids
For those of you who don’t know me, I am an advocate and activist for adults who were sexually abused as children. In addition, I help train parents and teachers on recognizing sings of abuse, reporting abuse, and raising empowered children who are less likely to be abused. I am also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and I can’t sit idly and let what happened to me happen to another child. A huge part of my job is telling people that we need to raise our children in a world of no secrets.
Childhood sexual abuse, bullying, and other crimes that plague our children thrive in secrecy. They thrive in a world where kids are scared to talk to an adult. They thrive in a world where “tattletales” are punished. Predators thrive because we were programmed as children to believe that tattling is wrong, even though we don’t rationally know why. The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is a perfect example.
If we tell our kids not to tattle on their peers, how are they able to differentiate one, two or five years later when they learn that a friend is being sexually abused? Or they see a peer beating up another child? Or they know a child who is responsible for cyber-bullying a classmate? Is that tattling, too? How do they know the difference? It’s simple: They don’t.
Bullies know that they can threaten kids into silence by saying, “You’ll just get in trouble for telling on me.” Remember, a 13- or 14-year-old does not have adult powers of reason. To a child or teen, “telling on” someone– no matter the crime – is tattling.
Parents may argue, “Well, my kid knows the difference and would tell me.” But I disagree. If you punish your child for tattling on the 5-year-old neighbor kid who hit his friend, you’ve already laid the groundwork. You’ve told your child that turning a blind eye to wrongdoing is more admirable than transparency. You’re telling your child that if she reports abuse – whether she was a victim or a witness – she will be punished.
As a part of my job, I give presentations all over the country about protecting kids. Almost every time, a teen or young adult approaches me and says, “I have friends who were abused, but I couldn’t tell anyone, because I didn’t want to tattle.”
Think it stops there? Think again. One of the toughest parts of my job is convincing mandatory reporters that they have to report SUSPECTED abuse. Mandatory reporters stay silent because are afraid that they will get punished or that they may get an innocent person into trouble. What I have to stress is that the system of reporting SUSPECTED abuse understands that it’s just SUSPECTED … and they need to report, even if an investigation proves that their suspicions were wrong. I am lucky to get people to report when they witnessed abuse … or when they discover child abuse images (child porn) … or when a child tells them they are being hurt.
The ramifications of our reticence to report crimes are widespread. Why do you think we have to have “whistleblower protection” laws to make sure that people who report wrongdoing aren’t subject to retaliation?
Add to that the myriad of problems in politics, unions, clubs, communities, and other organizations/movements/beliefs. People witness crimes in these arenas all of the time, yet they are scared to report even if they are victimized or witnessed the crime. Why? They grew up being taught that it’s wrong to tattle on their friends.
If you need anymore proof, look at your saving account or the value of your home. We ended up with a banking scandal because people believed “it was not my place” to report the crimes of their co-workers. We ended up with widespread mortgage fraud because thousands of people said nothing because they were taught that silence was more admirable than protecting the innocent.
It’s really not that much of a stretch.