The recent outbreaks of violence and threats of violence in schools have forced parents and kids to face an uncomfortable truth: sometimes it is necessary to "tattle." From the time our kids start talking, most of us parents discourage them from reporting on the everyday indignities they suffer at the hands of hair-pulling sisters, obnoxious little brothers or backyard bullies. We want our kids to be strong and learn to handle situations without our intervention. We don't want our kids to tattle. Except, of course, when they should.
Violence-prevention experts agree that parents should begin educating their children starting around age 5 on the difference between "tattling" and "telling." Tattling is telling on someone in order to get him in trouble. Telling is reporting about someone to get him help.
Of course, it's easier to state the distinction than to get kids to understand or trust it. Young children, especially, often fear that if they tell on another kid, both will get in trouble. To get around that, parents need to keep their cool to show children that they can be safely confided in. Once a young child brings information home, a parent must handle it with other grownups--taking it out of the child's hands. The act of telling is hard enough; parents shouldn't further burden kids by asking them to fix things too.
Parents should continue the conversation about telling through elementary school, when children are most eager to talk and listen to their parents. Good conversation starters are open-ended questions like "What did you think when you saw that happen?" Role playing can help: "If a friend told you he was going to do something scary, what would you do?"
A study just released by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows a disturbing chasm between parents and kids about just how effective family talks can be. Even though 66% of parents of eight-to-11-year-olds said they had talked to their kids about guns in school, only half of their children remembered having such a conversation. Parents should bring up topics frequently but naturally, so kids learn that difficult subjects can be freely and easily discussed at home.
With middle or high schoolers, parents need to avoid two danger zones: the "freak out" and the "big talk." Sixty-one percent of teens in the Kaiser study said they don't confide in their parents because they don't want to worry them. Parents need to demonstrate that they can listen to their kids without judging them and answer questions calmly and without lecturing. The car is a good place to talk with teens because it isn't too face to face. Parents shouldn't wait for their children to take the lead. Adults can use recent events as a jumping-off point but should talk about telling even when it isn't in the news.
Once you urge your child to "tell," the burden is on you to believe him, and if he comes home with news of kids' talking about harming themselves or others, take it seriously, even if it is buried in an account of "I have a friend who knows a guy who overheard a kid in the locker room saying some stupid things." Kids also appreciate it when parents confide their own stories. If you dealt with issues such as violence and bullying as a teen, tell your kids about it. If it starts a conversation, your family could have had the "big talk" without anyone's even realizing it.