Tattling, Tattletales, and Tattleboxes

You Tattletale!!

Tattling or “telling on” is commonplace for many 5-10 year olds, and for many teachers it can be a real annoyance! As children, we were taught that we shouldn’t tattle on others, so it only stands to reason that we would continue to enforce this belief with youngsters today. But why? What harm does tattling cause us? Is it because we just don’t want to hear it right now? Perhaps before you institute “no tattling” as classroom policy, you should consider what tattling is, and more importantly, why children are often so eager to spout off about what little Kimberly or Scott is doing on the other side of the classroom.

The reasons children tattle would appear to be very basic. For many, it is a ploy to get attention. Children hope that the information they provide may somehow prove useful, and they will be rewarded. Other times, they are looking to get someone in trouble so they can again find superiority in “I told you so”. Some maintain that tattling is appropriate only when someone is being hurt physically. But what about psychologically? In the wake of so many tragic episodes of violence in our schools, it would seem only proper to hold a teacher liable for encouraging the psychological bullying of one student by another.

As stated by A.S.A.P.: A School-based Anti-Violence Program, “Many teachers and parents tell children not to “tattle,” and to resolve their problems themselves. In the bullying situation, though, there is a power imbalance of some kind which ensures that the victim always gets the worst of the interaction. The victim and bully both need intervention in order to stop the pattern.” Would it not make sense then, that sometimes tattling is appropriate, even if someone is not being harmed physically?

What if you enforced a “no tattling” policy among your fifth graders, and on the playground a girl is chased by a boy and maybe receives a peck on the cheek or has her skirt lifted? No one has been physically harmed, so she obviously should not tattle, right? You might want to review Suzanne Fields’ article, Stealing a kiss has become grand larceny, from the Washington Times. In it, she reviews Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a female student could go ahead with a lawsuit seeking damages from her school district, because fifth grade male harassed her. The male student was prosecuted and convicted of sexual battery in juvenile court.

It would seem that some lingo for all of this tattling would help matters a great deal. After all, in some cases it would certainly seem that the only prudent thing to do is tell a teacher or adult when something that shouldn’t be happening is. But do we still call that information “tattling?” Let’s not forget about good old fashioned “he took my doll” or “she’s making faces at me”.

Dr. Thomas Gordon blames tattling (and many other “negative” behaviors) on adult figures of authority who use their position to control children – even if they don’t realize it. Gordon explains that behaviors like tattling are coping mechanisms used by children when adults try to control them. His article, How Children Really React to Control, offers an excellent look at what happens when you become a controlling adult figure: “you can always expect some kind of reaction from the controllee.”
While we may not be able to tell you exactly why kids tattle or exactly how to handle it, hopefully the ideas and articles presented here can give you some background on the topic and food for thought. In the meantime, our T2T contributors continue a discussion of their own on tattling, a conversation which we felt compelled to share. Their views follow: I have been subbing for the past four months, and have gotten my classroom management skills down pretty good, but today I was subbing in the 2nd grade and something came up that I wasn’t sure how to handle. Could you give me some feedback on how you handle tattling? What has been effective for you? Some ideas on how I can handle this matter, especially in the lower grades would be greatly appreciated!! -Cathy [LadyPnthr] Some of our teachers had a tattlebox. It was a covered shoebox with scraps of paper by it. Students were directed to the tattle box when they tried to tattle to the teacher. They were to write the problem down and put it in the box. The teacher had a set time to go through the tattlebox. Now, a few of these teachers were kindergarten teachers. By the end of the day, she would ask the children who wrote them to “read” them. Of course, most of them couldn’t read what they had written and had forgotten what had happened! Not much time was spent on tattling. For older children who can write, maybe you could address these tattles the first few minutes of recess time. Perhaps missing a few minutes of recess would motivate some of them to reduce tattling. -Marcia [ncnyga] Lots of people have great ideas on how to handle tattling and I got a few off this list I think are great. I do, however have a theory about tattling especially at the second grade level. Second graders seem to be the worst, or is it that they are the best tattlers in the world. Tattling is extremely important to a second grader and I often just tell them, “Thank you for telling me” and ignore it. Sometimes it is something out of my control and I tell them I will look into it. I’m not convinced that squashing tattling completely is the right thing to do. I have come to the conclusion that at second grade something is going on developmentally. The children are highly aware of what you have set down as a rule and are becoming aware that so many children are not following the rule that you set up as a rule. I think they are really dealing with the issue of “you said this is a rule and we should all follow it…but I see so and so is not following it, and when I tell you, you get after me for telling you, so exactly what is a rule. Is it a rule if you don’t get caught. Which rules are the ones that we really have to follow all the time and which rules are only sort of rules.” As they go through this process of tattling, they are developing a sense of what a rule is and that we definitely do not follow through every time a rule is broken. I think they are getting a sense for what are really rules (better not hit someone ever, and verbal abuse is not too good, but one can get away with it a lot…) and which ones are just guidelines that we use to keep our classes fairely quiet–the children eventually learn what your limits are, just how much talking is allowed during quiet work time, walking in line, waiting for the assembly to start, what ever. I think tattling definitely helps children develop this sense.
Unfortunately, as a child I did not learn that I could just tattle to get someone in trouble, so I have a tendancy not to see that angle in tattling. When it becomes obvious that a child is doing this, then I deal with that child. Basically I use the rule that there is a difference between telling and tattling. You tell if someone is in danger. I liked the suggestion that someone on the list made: are you telling me to get someone into trouble or out of trouble.
I think tattling is a developmental necessity and it seems to get its worst in second grade. I’m not advocating that you let children tattle all they want, they will drive you crazy, but I think we should all think about what is going on in a child’s mind when he or she is tattling. Some of them really do not understand why you are ignoring the fact that little Johnny is breaking your rule, especially if you caught them breaking it yesterday–they probably don’t even know that they were yelling across the room and the other child was whispering to a neighbor, you had said no talking during quiet work time. -kdbusy I just established a tattle box. I have the child write down his/her name, the date and the tattle and then put it in the tattle box. Now when (always the same few) start to tattle, I just say write it down. I tell them I will read them and if necessary (ie it is something they should tell me) I will get back with them. It has cut the tattling down to only the important things like: someone is sick or someone could get hurt. Hope it works the rest of the year. -Linda Patton In my classroom, my students aren’t allowed to tattle unless there is REAL physical or emotional threats made against the one who is tattling. I tell my students to use their words and talk to each other. The tattler is supposed to tell the threatener how he/she feels. The intent is to get feelings out in the open and get the problem solved without involving the teacher. I also have several students who feel the need to tattle no matter what. I tell them to go to Mrs. Crabtree (my stuffed “teacher” bear) and tattle to her. I tell them she will listen. After a while, the tattler feels a bit ridculous talking to a stuffed bear and stops tattling. Works for me. -Lisa [disbrow] Maria Montessori found that children tattle because they are trying to figure out the difference between right and wrong so they have to question every thing. Between 1st and 2nd grade is prime time for that stage of development. They are only wanting you to confirm their assumption that the thing they are tattling about was wrong or a bad thing to do or say. It is not necessary to impose punishment on the person they are tattling about or to confront the other party immediately, they just want confirmation or not. I try to let the child know that I feel they are justified in being upset or not and tell them I will take care of it later, thanks for telling me. -Vanessa Osborne, NC/Grade 5 Try a tattlebox! Cover a shoebox or an oatmeal carton and put a slit in the top. Leave some pieces of paper near the tattlebox. When a child comes to you to tattle, tell them you don’t have time to listen right now, but if they write it down for you, you will read it later (sometime like recess.) Now you know, your first graders are not going to be able to write the situation down very well and many are not going to bother. When your class is getting ready to go out for recess, you set everyone down and pull out the tattles. You will need to ask the children what they have written and most will have forgotten! I hope your tattling situation subsides. -Marcia in Atlanta [ncnyga] I spend a lot of time discussing the difference between “tattling” and “informing.” The kids’ dictionaries define tattling as “telling secrets.” This kind of surprises them. We also talk about how tattling can be a form of ridicule since they don’t tell if their friend was running up the hall, but they are quick to tell me that someone else was running. When talking with them about tattling, you need to be sure to tell them the items that they need to tell you. It’s not tattling if someone kicked them in the bathroom! Today one of my students couldn’t wait to tell me that the principal had spoken to another student. One of my former students came down the hall and told my current student, “Mrs. Duffy doesn’t like tattling!” That made quite an impact. Carol Duffy When I taught first grade someone told me this and I never thought it would work, but it did! Hopefully you’ll have the same results. I had a sign on my desk that just said “Is it T.N.K.?” The letters stood for true, necessary, and kind. Once I got the students used to the TNK meaning when they were about to tattle I’d just ask, is it TNK and most would go through the thought process. If the first two didn’t get them the kind one always did. The tattlling reduced DRAMATICALLY after that. Of course, the real important thing I always found out since they just told them to you anyways or you could tell tht it was important before they started the TNK process. -Susan [Gr8Tunes] A couple of things I’ve used in the past include: 1. Tell the tattler, “Are you trying to get someone in trouble or out of danger?” The younger students understand that! 2. We also used “M.Y.O.B.” or “mind your own business”–my students loved it because it was like a secret code. All I had to say was, “M.Y.O.B.” and they loved to spell it out. There will always be students who tattle more than others, just be patient with them. Talk with them on an individual basis about the difference b/t tattling and informing. I would let them know how tattling is a way of getting a friend in trouble, how we don’t want to do that because we wouldn’t want our friend to do that to us, etc. -Amber Price [TchSkool] I don’t know if my idea will stop the tattling altogether but it has cut down what I have to hear. I have a tattle box with a note pad beside it. I instructed my students that from now on they can only tell me when someone has been hurt, the rest must be written down and put in the tattle box. Now every night before I leave the room I get the tattle messages. Some of the messages are really fun to read because as second graders their spelling is quite poor–hence some real unusual tattles. By the way, my partner said I would need an appliance box for my tattle box!! -Vi–Second Grade teacher I have dealt with this in the past with my sixth grade students. I talk with my kids from day one about respect, treating others kindly etc. The first time there is a put down or tattling to get someone in trouble I conference with the kids. I let them know that I simply will not tolerate disrespect for others. I also stand firm if I hear from parents so they know that I will not entertain bad mouthing about others. One other thing that I do is to hold class meetings where we discuss things that are bothering us out in the open and try to resolve conflicts as a class. The meetings help so that kids do not gang up on one or two others. Be serious, and involve the principal right from the get go and that type of behavior will diminish. It has worked for me. Oops I forgot one other thing that I do each year with my sixth graders that seems to have a positive impact. I make a big heart out of construction paper. Then, I talk to my kids about self-esteem and hurting each others feelings. I model what it feels like to have your feelings hurt by talking about a day in the life of a sixth grader. Everytime someone hurts their feelings I rip a piece of the heart off. By the end of the discussion the heart is in pieces and we try to put it back together again but it is never the same, just like we are never the same after having someone hurt our feelings. I then hang the heart on the board for the remainder of the year as a reminder. -Patti [seaoats] You can sing this song. The kids get so sick and tired of hearing it, they remind one another, “Don’t tell or she’ll start singing THAT song!”
I’m telling! I’m telling!
I’m going to holler and I’m going to yell.
I’m going to get you in trouble, for everything you do.
I’m going to tell on YOU! (point at the tattler.)
I promise you it WORKS! -Janice S. Kibbe, Science/Technology Resource, Sumner Avenue Magnet School, Springfield, MA