By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Whether you’re a classroom teacher or a parent running a play group, you don’t have time (or, if you’re like me, the patience) to listen to tattling. On the other hand, you want your kids to know that if there’s a legitimate problem, they can come to you with it. How do you tell the difference?
It helps to keep in mind the classic definition of bullying. Remember, it’s peer conflict if the kids are equal and merely disagreeing; it becomes bullying when there’s an imbalance of power. If, for example, the children involved are different sizes or ages, or if there are different numbers of children involved (such as three against one), you may have a bullying incident on your hands. Frequency of occurrence is another good indicator.
Let’s look at two similar situations and decide which might be peer conflict and which might be bullying (and therefore which might involve tattling and which would be actual reporting).
Junie and Reena are best friends. They’re the same age and close to the same size, and the last time you looked at them during free playtime, they were playing happily with blocks. However, Junie approaches you and says, “Reena’s taking all the purple blocks for herself! She won’t let me build with them!” A look at Reena shows you that she does indeed have all the purple blocks in front of her and is building happily with them. You could ask Junie how she knows Reena won’t give her the blocks—it may never have occurred to her to simply ask Reena for them. You could suggest that Junie ask Reena for half of the purple blocks (and perhaps offer her something in return likes a favorite action figure for Reena to use in the house she’s building) and see how that goes.
In this situation, Junie is likely tattling (though perhaps not on purpose). She identifies what she considers to be a problem, and rather than attempting to solve it herself, she immediately goes to you. A couple of questions and helpful suggestions later, and the girls are back on track.
Now imagine that although Junie and Reena are friends, you’ve noticed they have a lot of conflict and that Reena is friends with an older, bigger boy in the class named Alex. When Junie tells you that Reena is taking all the purple blocks and won’t share them, you notice that Alex and Reena are in fact playing together with the purple blocks. Right away, you can see several imbalances of power: Reena and Alex outnumber Junie; Alex is older than Junie, and Alex is also bigger than Junie. All of this may intimidate Junie enough that she doesn’t feel safe asking for the blocks. Which means that, in this case, it is more likely that Junie is reporting bullying (even if Alex and Reena aren’t aware that they’re bullying Junie) rather than tattling about a problem she could solve but won’t. At this point, it may be best to talk to each of them individually and monitor the three of them for a few days as they play together.
By keeping in mind the differences between peer conflict and bullying, you may find it easier to discern between tattling and reporting. And by teaching your children the differences between peer conflict and bullying—along with a healthy dose of social problem-solving skills—you may be able to cut down tattling drastically, if not eliminate it altogether.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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