Rules and telling

I had no ideas for Wednesday posts, so here’s one that I apparently started back in 2019 but never polished up or posted!

Agaishanlife discusses the idea of tattling here.

Back when we were growing up, there was a very strong non-NARC culture because we would get punished if we ever “tattled”.

Thankfully, that has changed.  “Tell someone” and “Use your words” are now “in” so we have thankfully not had to deal with our children being admonished for “tattling”.  Back at the wonderful daycare that went out of business, they’d use telling a teacher as a way to model for the children to work out their differences with teacher facilitation until they were able to do it on their own without teacher facilitation.  So basically, if a kid told on another kid, the teacher would be like, “X took your toy without asking?  Did you ask if you could have your toy back?” and if the kid hadn’t then, the teacher would tell them to ask for their toy back.  And if they had, then the teacher might go to the other kid and moderate a discussion about playing with the toy.  K-4 there’s less of that, but they also don’t punish children for telling things.

I really don’t think that kids are capable of understanding the differences between telling about something important and the kind of “tattling” where teachers used to think that kids were trying “to get other kids in trouble”.  I genuinely think little kids cannot separate the idea of trying to get someone in trouble just telling an adult when something is wrong. They do not generally know which rules are important or why (maybe with the exception of a few major things like biting/hitting). It seems really arbitrary to a kid when they’re punished for reporting some things but not others.   [Back in 2019] I do not think my 7 year old is at a point where zie would really understand the difference, and zie is pretty socially ept for a 7 year old.

There are so many things in retrospect I should have told adults but never did because I’d been told not to tattle.  Because I’d been used to being punished for telling when I was in preschool so as I got older I assumed I was on my own. I always thought so long as I wasn’t being physically harmed I had to keep it to myself. I could have avoided a lot of bullying, including really misogynist stuff as late as 8th grade if I had realized adults would support me instead of punishing me. This all stems from my being punished for tattling as a 3 year old (and later reinforcement, no doubt).

I don’t think we should even use the words tattle or snitch.  We should encourage kids to protect themselves by letting an adult know if they’re being harmed.  We should encourage kids to let an adult know if something dangerous is happening. I don’t think the other stuff needs to be addressed at all– it’s just confusing for the kid.

[One] morning [in 2019] zie told me that I wasn’t supposed to be eating breakfast in the living room. (This is true– nobody is supposed to be eating in the living room.) Zie wasn’t trying to get me in trouble with myself. Yet, when zie says the same thing about hir sibling I might think zie was trying to get DC1 in trouble.  (And of course, if I accidentally spill something in the living room, I’m also the one who has to clean it up and also the one who has to pay for any replacements.)

Really I think often they want to know what the limits of the rules are. They want things to be fair. They want to be able to do things that other kids are doing. There are a lot of reasons they “tell” on people that aren’t just about getting kids in trouble that could be misinterpreted by adults as such.

Did you get punished for telling adults about problems as a little kid?  

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: . 26 Comments »

26 Responses to “Rules and telling”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    The whole concept of what is secret vs. private vs. not wanting to ruin a surprise is pretty complicated for kids (and adults!). We expect kids to somehow make sense of the ideas that they should tell you things that are “important” or are “safety issues” but not (as you say) “to get someone in trouble” and “if an adult tells you to keep a secret you should tell someone trusted right away” but “definitely don’t tell your younger siblings that Santa isn’t real!!!”.

  2. Alison Says:

    My son’s daycare did the same thing, and it got my socially inept 4-year-old in so so so much trouble. He would tell a teacher something, and the teacher would send him back to advocate for himself, and he would go back and the next thing anyone noticed he would have hit the other kid. Eventually they made a rule that if he reported ANYTHING to a teacher, the teacher was to follow him back and mediate.

    And he DID learn from that that telling teachers was useless and got you in trouble and it took YEARS for him to unlearn that. And the related skill of asking if he could go somewhere quiet rather than just throwing things to be sent immediately to the quiet principal’s office.

    He seems generally fine with telling grownups things now without much of a sense of tattling as bad— in fact I’ve had to stop him from going up to strangers on the street to ask why they are breaking the rules by (say) not wearing a helmet when biking.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The daycare was always good about keeping an extra eye out on new kids who hadn’t learned the culture yet (which was a property rights culture– if a kid was playing with something, then the rule was that kid got to keep playing with it, unlike the Lutheran daycare we did for a year on leave which was a sharing culture– if a kid asked to have the item, then the kid playing with it would have to share). And if he had said yes, he had asked for it back, then the teacher would have gone over there to mediate and enforce (with nobody actually getting in trouble, just reinforcing the rules). But really, by age 4, the vast majority of kids weren’t taking each other’s toys without asking since they learned not to do that as toddlers. Man, that was such a great daycare. There are a lot of adults who could use their teachings.

  3. A Says:

    I don’t remember getting in trouble per se, but I certainly never got the impression that talking to a teacher might help at all when getting bullied. On the other hand, if I managed to get around problems such as them being older and outnumbering me and beat one of them up, that wasn’t ok either. Hence school sucked massively, until we reached the point where pupils get sent to different school types based on academic achievement.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    I never understood why tattling was bad. Not that long ago, I learned that it’s only tattling for small things that is rude–we all deserve mercy. And now here I’m learning that tattling to get someone in trouble is what is bad. That angle never occurred to me (except for when the tattle isn’t true.) I still don’t really get it. If you whine about something small, whoever you’re whining to can make it a teaching moment. As a kid, I’m sure it seems unfair to have higher standards for oneself than for everybody else and to otherwise deal with difficult realities.

    Personally, I never had trouble with this. I guess I mostly thought things weren’t my responsibility (yikes!), and mostly I didn’t notice what was going on with other people. When bad things happened to me, I was a crybaby. I only remember my mom asking me why I was crying, and she never punished me for tattling or even for crying.

    Now as an adult, I’ve seen that truly awful things happen to whistle-blowers. These are people who are not calling out minor issues and who are wanting to fix something and/or prevent future horrors, not punish someone. And yet people are routinely fired for whistle-blowing, so much so that they often wait until they quit before reporting. They can be imprisoned or deported or murdered. We’ve all learned that calling out a rapist makes *you* a trouble maker and can ruin your career, life on campus, online life, or who knows what else. Those with power and their supporters can hurt you very badly if you tattle on them.

    To me this is all part of an even bigger issue that’s bothering me, where people prioritize appearances over reality. Working in a Japanese company, my boyfriend had real trouble trying to do his job of making the products the best they could be because he didn’t understand how to deal with the face-saving needs. And in current events, critical race theory is being treated as tabu tattling.

    So, I’m glad the anti-tattling tabu is not a thing in many modern elementary schools, even in red states, but it is still very much a thing elsewhere.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I got punished so much for crying (which… didn’t help me stop crying). And called a crybaby. And was accused of having crocodile tears. OMG, it’s remarkable I don’t have more issues than I already do!

      You bring up important and extremely troubling points about the patriarchal society that we live in.

      • Debbie M Says:

        So sorry and sad about how you were treated. And of course, getting mad at yourself for crying doesn’t help you stop either!

  5. omdg Says:

    I work in an environment where tattlers are punished so I still won’t do it. Nurses tattle, doctors don’t, that’s just how it is. If ever you complained about anything in residency, 100% you would be punished for it, and that is still the case now as an attending. I’d say where I currently work is the least malignant I’ve been in medicine, and it is still that way. I don’t think I will ever get over this.

    Also, I will say that who is allowed to tattle or complain more broadly is a bit of a hierarchy / power dynamic. The people who are in the “in-group” are allowed to tattle and complain about things. Everyone else gets gaslit and has the complaint flipped back around onto them. Anyway… as a result I won’t tattle. I don’t expect that will ever change.

  6. mnitabach Says:

    Growing up as an early Gen Xer, it was was always abundantly obvious that we kids lived in a separate world of our own from the adults’ world. They didn’t want to know what was happening in our world & we didn’t want to know what was happening in their world. Like in the Peanuts comic strip universe, it just never seemed like there was any salience or relevance of trying to explain anything to adults. The ramping up over the decades since then of the involvement of adults in the world of children has been pretty remarkable to me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      And you read children’s literature going back 100 years and it’s even worse with kids doing genuine physical harm to each other and animals and it’s no big deal to anyone. Or all the domestic abuse jokes on the honeymooners. And people are fighting civilized progress.

  7. Alice Says:

    I don’t remember being actively punished for tattling, but I do remember it being discouraged. I also remember getting into trouble for not stopping my brothers from fighting. As if they were going to listen to me! One of them is less than a year younger than me. I had no authority from being a lot older and I didn’t even have the physical ability to get them separated. Even at the time, I knew that it it was unjust.

    Sometimes I think that for most of my parents’ generation, their first priority was on what was easy for them. It’s easier to not have to deal with kid problems if you don’t hear about them or if you unrealistically expect the kids to do the right thing/sort things out without an adult getting involved. And it’s easier to blame the kid for not evaluating and dealing with a situation in the same way as an adult than it is to actually BE the adult dealing with it.

    I also think that the entire idea of punishment and getting “in trouble” is problematic, and probably fed into it. If the adult’s role is to break an escalating situation and either reiterate rules or help the kids learn to deal with conflicts, it’s different than if the adult’s role is to penalize. After all, shutting down “tattling” isn’t about shutting down the problematic behavior being reported. It’s about the adult being able to maintain their ignorance of what’s going on and thus not having to act.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We are super lazy parents who always do what’s easiest but I think we have better tools than our parents’ generation did. What’s easiest is to have kids who understand why we do what we do and who feel safe and loved.

      You’re definitely right about different understandings of the parent’s role. That’s even a source of conflict among parents now—guiding vs punishing vs no guidance at all (which is truly bizarre)

  8. teresa Says:

    Huh, I was thinking this morning about why making mandated DCFS reports often makes me uneasy (this is not remotely an argument against mandatory reporting- I think it’s too much a net positive to eliminate). A lot is that I have fears about reporting of non-white and/or less privileged families resulting in outsized/unwarranted consequences/additional trauma (and abuse in white and privileged families being ignored). I think some also comes from prohibitions against “tattling” and growing up in a culture of emphasizing staying out of other people/families business- which obviously shouldn’t apply to getting kids (or adults) out of unsafe situations but somewhere subconsciously I think my brain is trying to apply it.

    Definitely as a kid I got in trouble for tattling of any sort. And for being a crybaby. And even reporting bullying just resulted in an invitation to consider what I was doing to invite that behavior/failing to do to stop or prevent it. Or a dismissal of “oh, that’s just what boys do when they have a crush on someone.”

    Absolutely agree with what OMDG said about doctors not tattling and being punished for anything perceived as a complaint. Especially as a resident or fellow. That said…I have started cc’ing my group’s medical director if I email an NP or PA about a serious mistake they’ve made (eg, badly misinterpreting an abnormal result with potentially serious consequences, prescribing a legitimately contraindicated medication). Which feels like tattling, but my experience is if I don’t, they (a) keep doing the same thing and/or (b) complain to said medical director that I’m too critical of them, even though I make a major effort to dress up the criticism in the nicest feedback sandwich style.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      ” just resulted in an invitation to consider what I was doing to invite that behavior/failing to do to stop or prevent it. Or a dismissal of “oh, that’s just what boys do when they have a crush on someone.””

      BOTH OF THESE. And so much the second. No. That is not what boys do when they “like” you (it’s what they do to help the patriarchy keep you down), and if it is, then they need to learn better behavior because that’s not a healthy relationship dynamic. SOOO much 1980s and 1990s drama had the enemies to lovers trope and it is a terrible and stupid trope. People need to GROW UP. Though I guess the 1980s and 90s also had “no means yes” [sic] and “women enjoy being assaulted and stalked” [sic] as big tropes in romance novels, so healthy relationship modeling was really not a thing that existed in media. UGH.

      Once the school counselor suggested I stop raising my hand so much in class if I wanted people to like me. Fortunately I knew that was ridiculous advice and that one day I would blow that popsicle stand (I did).

      • omdg Says:

        HA! I received the same hand raising advice in the 4th grade from a math teacher. Also (wait for it…) from some newly minted fellows taking research classes in my PhD program. Yay. :-(

      • Alice Says:

        My daughter’s pre-k teachers told me that they’d been telling her not to raise her hand when she knew the answer to their questions. They knew she was already above level and wanted to give other kids a chance to answer, but of course, that’s a hard thing for a kid to understand. I’m still not sure that on some level, she hasn’t internalized the idea that she’s supposed to hide how much she knows. At least they didn’t link it to being liked. Something to watch for in the years to come.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:


        See, this is part of why both of our kids skipped grades. At this point a lot of other kids aren’t even aware that they’re 1-2 years younger.

      • teresa Says:

        yep, also got the advice about concealing what I knew to make people like me. With bonus sexism!- “Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them. You’ll never find a boyfriend if you let them know how smart you are.”
        In retrospect, how that squares with the idea that harassment is a sign of “liking” someone, I have no idea.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        As if a boy who can’t handle a smart woman should be anyone’s life goal(!)

  9. First Gen American Says:

    I work in the chemical industry and from a safety standpoint, we have a “see something, say something” culture because looking the other way can lead to a plant explosion and death. That being said there are still some regional differences on reporting minor OSHA violations. Our old parent company was US based. The new one is middle eastern and the hierarchical structure is much more rigid now.

    We do still support the very Boston “no one likes a rat” philosophy with our kids when it comes to each other. Mostly because I hate the work colleagues who trash talk others to make themselves look better. Cutting someone else down doesn’t make you a better person. I hate when we are trying to talk about a topic and everything always becomes a comparison to their brother. Some of it is about fairness, but the benchmark shouldn’t be if you are better or worse than your brother at something, but what your own potential is. Own your mistakes and own your successes. I want my kids to grow up and be the ones pulling the people around them up, not cutting them down.

    I guess I see this differently than calling out things like sexism or
    racial injustice. Our kids are a lot more in tune to that stuff than our generation was and have no problem calling out something as racist, sexist or homophobic.

    That being said, we did have and continue to have many talks about safety, being stolen and sexual assault and what one should do in those situations. I was a victim (twice) as a child and did say something both times. I’d like to hope that if something was seriously wrong they’d say something.

  10. SP Says:

    I don’t remember getting in trouble for tattling, nor trying to get adults to help resolve problems. At school, I imagine I was mostly oblivious to things and in my own world, for better or worse. At home, I think there were just not very many rules in general, aside from not hurting each other and such, and “Mom/Dad, she hit me!” was sure to be followed by an admonishment to the offender. did internalize (at a young age) not raising my hand a lot of showing what I knew, but I don’t think anyone told me to do it, I just recognized that on my own.

    I’ll have to think about how to handle with LO, and agree that I’d err on the side of asking an adult for help instead of getting in trouble for “tattling”. I do think they have a property rights culture at school, and I think the teachers help model conflict resolution, but she is in a very small classroom right now, and there seem to be few conflicts (that I hear about…)

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