Oh, how fickle the stages of development are! Today she’s big and brave, tomorrow she’s scared of the dark. Today he loves broccoli (or at least the florets), tomorrow he throws a tantrum at the sight of anything green on his plate. You know how it goes. Kids can’t be pinned be down, the squirmy little buggers.
For three years, my son steadily defied certain rules, or they would fly out the window if one of his friends broke them. We never walk across the plants in the garden, for instance. But as soon as a playmate barreled over the garden barrier, Felix would too, losing whatever training we had instilled.
No longer. Now the rule breaker has become the rule enforcer. “We don’t do that,” he told his friend the other day. “We stay on the paths.”
At first this seemed like a cute show of responsibility and ownership over his space and possessions, but then the rules became ones of his own creation. “This train doesn’t fit on those tracks,” he said, not matter-of-factly, but all bossy, like “Get that train off my track, kid!”
And it wasn’t adorable at all when he decided to tattle on his friend, and then get really upset, I mean out of proportionately distraught over the infraction. “Why is she DOING THAT??!!! I told her my big train doesn’t fit on that track. DADDDD!!!”
I’m sure we all remember the tattlers of our childhood, with their choruses of “I’m telling!” I had three girl cousins tattle tales growing up, and they hounded me like The Furies of Greek myth, spirits of vengeance who would follow wrongdoers 24/7. Except in my case, I was doing little wrong besides being a grubby little boy. Any infraction — saying something they deemed gross, or playing with their dolls in a way they deemed gross, or picking my nose (which they deemed gross) — resulted in “I’m going to tell your parents!” It makes the hair on the back of my neck stick up just thinking about it.
“Oh, go tell ’em,” I used to spit back, among other choice words, which were definitely gross.
What is it in human nature that enjoys appealing to authority? Perhaps it’s part of our social nature, though in children, this behavior often seems very unsocial. Instead of working to solve a problem on their own, they remove themselves to tell an adult. Could be they want to seem like a valued, contributing member of the ruling class. Or they think they’ll be rewarded for being “good.” In my cousins’ case, it often seems like they were striking back at me in the only way they knew how, handing this nasty intruder (ewww… a boy!) in their space on to the powers-that-be.
I recently read on the Growing Child newsletter about one way to deal with a tattling child — say a quick “thank you” and leave it at that. The thank you acknowledges that you’ve heard them, but doesn’t mean you’re going to take any action. If that’s not enough, then lead the child through a checklist, asking if anyone’s getting hurt, or something is being destroyed, etc. in order to help the child see that this is something that could be worked out without adult intervention. And finally, if necessary, model how the child could address the issue with his or her peer. Get involved and listen, but don’t get too involved; you don’t want to encourage the behavior.
It’s important for kids to learn what is a problem that requires an adult’s attention, and what is one they can solve themselves. Knowing how to deal with others, even when they’re breaking rules, is an important part of being an active, independent member of society.
And of course, tattling is also annoying! No one likes a snitch. Not even parents, most of the time.