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The best policy, The National, 13.01.2009

When does honest communication become tale telling? Jo Wadham explores the balance

Is honesty always the best policy? To be honest, having a telltale in the family has always been extremely useful. With three young children to keep an eye on, it has been great to have my eldest tell me, “Mummy, he’s climbing on the garage roof again!”. It never really occurred to me that this might be a problem until a play date a few weeks ago. My daughter’s friend told her mother that her elder brother had kicked her, to which the mother replied, “Don’t be such a telltale”. This caused a moment’s reflection: was I encouraging dobbing in? Was I bringing up a grass?

There is a difficult balancing act here. While no one really wants their child to be a “snitch”, most parents are keen for their children to feel they can tell them anything. Ever fearful of their children being put in unhappy situations with no one to confide in, parents want unfettered communication with their children. The mistake, according to Dr Pat Spungin, the founder of the parenting website www.raisingkids.co.uk, is to assume that this means we have to let them tell on everything. Children do decide what they tell us. How they decide is based on a complicated interplay of emotions and the moral code learnt from their family.

Depending on the situation in which it arises, having a child telling tales needs to be handled differently.

The sibling dispute

“Mummy, Johnny kicked me!”. There is a certain amount of bickering between siblings in every family. Spungin suggests that the first thing a parent should do is interpret the intention behind the tale telling. “Is she telling you about her brother because she wants to get him into trouble? Or because she is concerned?” As Spungin points out, you rarely find an older sibling telling a mother about the positive things her sister or brother is doing.

As parents, how we deal with our children when they run up to us and tell tales will teach them a lot about our family rules and boundaries regarding what is right and wrong. “They learn, as they tell us things, what our moral stance is,” explains Spungin. Parents often find that older children who are rule-abiding will tell on others who don’t respect the rules in a similar way. It is difficult to reassure the one telling tales that while there are consequences for breaking the rules, and the rule-breaker will be punished, it is the parents’ job to enforce those rules, not the siblings’.

The friends dispute

“Lucy is being mean to me!” It is more complex to deal with disputes between friends, because you have no control over one of the participants in the row. Disputes between friends can range from bickering to alerting you about dangerous situations such as bullying.

No parent wants to meddle in the upbringing of another’s child, no matter how close that child is to him or her. Again, Spungin says, one should look to the intention behind the tale telling.

“A child will have a concept in his or her family of where the boundaries are. For example, you can’t play with the video or electric sockets because it is dangerous. If they tell a tale about a friend doing this, it is because they have crossed a boundary that exists in the family and your child knows it is important or dangerous.” There are other times when it is vital that a child feels he can tell on another child, such as when they are being bullied. The UK charity Childline says that one of the key things a child needs to know about bullying is that they should confide in a teacher or someone else they trust. Spungin adds: “It is universal that a child will be reluctant to tell anyone about the bullying because they are ashamed and don’t want to make that shame public.”

Children will think there is nothing that can be done and that involving parents will only worsen the situation. Spungin suggests that parents try to pick up on clues and “be a good listener”. Arming your children with psychological weapons also can help. The website www.raisingkids.co.uk has a variety of suggestions on how to do this.

Disputes with other adults

This is a thorny issue. Children need to understand the difference between what is acceptable adult behaviour and what is not. Children telling on adults covers a broad spectrum, from the relatively minor “it’s not fair” that a teacher gave a merit sticker to another child, to confiding about abuse.

Every parent’s nightmare is that his or her child will be abducted or molested. Parents can’t protect their children 24 hours a day, but they can equip children with the right life tools to help them to get themselves out of difficult or threatening situations. Children should know that they can tell on adults who do something that makes them uncomfortable. Kidscape is a UK charity set up to prevent bullying and child abuse. Its website, www.kidscape.org.uk, provides many tips for parents and those who take care of children. The site explains that children need to understand the difference between safe and unsafe secrets. For example, it is safe to not tell about a surprise birthday party.

Kidscape also advises that children should know that, even if they have broken a rule and something bad has happened to them, they can still tell their parents (who will help sort it out) without being in trouble. Spungin adds that children who encounter abuse need to know that “they must make a choice in their own best interest even if it causes hurt or embarrassment to others, and that you will always be there to listen and respect what they want you to do with the information they give you”.

Given the potential challenges a child can encounter, it is tempting as a parent to preserve a free flow of communication at all costs. “Openness is not all or nothing,” Spungin says. It is not enough just to have open communication, because all children filter what they tell their parents to some extent. How much, and what, they tell parents will depend on the trust they have built with their parents over their childhood and the moral guidance they have received.


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