Tattling - or Reporting?
by Jan Fisher
Here we are---in the aftermath of yet another tragedy. There has been a shooting, this time on a high school campus in Southern California. The stories of each of these horrible events are shockingly alike. A student is isolated, he has few friends, he has had somewhat of a troubled life outside of school, and he decides, for some reason incomprehensible to all of us, to shoot the students at his school. Then, there are always the statements of friends: "He told me he was going to shoot someone, but I didn't believe it." Or, "I just didn't think he would do such a thing." Or "I didn't think I should report it because I thought he was kidding." I am not going to try to analyze either the inner emotions of a child who would be led to kill classmates, or the reasons that others would choose not to report it. Neither am I going to say, "If only they had...." or "If only we had....."
I am at a loss, like everyone, about what to do about this. But, at the same time that I am puzzling over it, I am also wondering if there is anything that teachers can do to help with this situation. A lesson of Dr. Madeline Hunter's keeps coming to mind---a lesson that I taught to get rid of the annoying tattling that kids inevitably do. But, as I reread her lesson and look deeper into it, I see a possible solution to one of the problems we are trying to cope with embedded in the lesson. That problem is the reluctance or refusal of those students who hear about the possible tragedy to report it. These kids obviously face indecision about their responsibility in these cases. Will it be tattling? Will one friend be ratting on another? Will they forever be viewed as "narcs?" Will they be violating the teenage code of loyalty to a peer? When I hear these kids interviewed after the shooting, they articulate the internal struggle they endured. Could they have made better decisions about reporting what they knew? And, is there something we could have done to have helped them do that? Maybe. And, just in case, I am going to share this lesson with you. Perhaps it will help. It sure won't hurt.
First of all, have you ever noticed that adults don't tattle? This behavior is pretty much confined to people under 21. Would any of you wrestle with the decision to report a gunman to the authorities? I doubt it. There is a reason for this---adults have developed discriminators that tell us what kinds of things should be reported and what kinds of things are simply busybody behavior. Kids do not have such discriminators. They need to be taught when and under what circumstances they have the responsibility to report certain behavior or information. There is a definite difference between tattling and reporting. Kids are not aware of that difference. We need to discourage one; encourage the other. The problem comes from the fact that almost every tattling incident can sometimes be tattling and sometimes be actual reporting. The kids must learn to make the discrimination.
The difference between tattling and reporting
The discriminator that divides tattling and reporting is motivation. The person is tattling when the purpose is to get attention for himself/herself or to get another person in trouble. S/he is reporting when the motivation is to get assistance for someone else.
In tattling, the tattler does nothing to assist the situation but goes directly to the authority. When the motive is assistance, the person will often do something appropriate to help the situation before seeking teacher aid. Teachers rightly need to know about serious behaviors of fighting, theft, cheating, and, yes, shooting. But, at the same time, we must be careful to not reward the tattletales of the world. Conversely, we need to encourage the reporting of information by kids who are afraid they are ratting on a friend.
Unfortunately, the severity of the situation can cloud the discrimination between tattling and reporting. We sometimes think that when we need to know about something because it is serious---"Shelby and Lileigh are having a fight"---it is reporting, and when it is trivial----"Katie took an extra pencil"----it is tattling. It is not the severity of the "crime" but the motives for it that are the proper discriminator. Dr. Hunter uses the example of the tattling/reporting of an intruder to illustrate this principle. You call the police because you see a stranger climbing into the window of the house next door. Clear reporting. If, however, the thief's accomplice gets mad at him and rats to the police, he is tattling even though he took the same action you did. Different motivation. You were trying to get help in a serious situation; the accomplice was trying to get his burglar buddy caught.
Is the line between reporting and tattling a fine one? You bet. But, it is an important one. As you begin to teach about when to be on one side of the line or the other, focus on the motivation idea. The objective for these lessons would be something like "Students will be able to discriminate between tattling and reporting and develop strategies for responsible reporting. Your lessons will differ in the behaviors you choose to discuss because of age and other differences , but the objective is always the same, grades K-to-forever.
Begin your lesson by saying, "We are having difficulty knowing the difference between tattling and reporting." Do not say that tattling is bad and reporting is good. I think we need to get away from criticizing tattling and condemning the tattler. The behaviors are not good or bad but are responsible or irresponsible reporting. You might tell students that the purpose of the lesson is to help them learn this important skill. No one should feel singled out as the "tattler." After all, it is simply a matter of learning. There's a reason why second graders tattle and adults don't. We have learned the lesson; they haven't.
Define tattling and reporting first. Have many examples developed where, under certain conditions, the action will be reporting and with others it will be tattling.
Example #1: John tells his teacher that Paul took an extra piece of paper. When is this reporting? When is it tattling?
Reporting - There is only one piece of paper available for each student. If Paul takes an extra one someone will go without. John has explained this to Paul and encouraged him to return it. Paul did not. John has asked the teacher for assistance.
Tattling - There is plenty of paper. John didn't bother to check to see if Paul had a valid reason for getting an extra piece but went directly to the teacher to report the sin.
Example #2: Lizzie tells the teacher that Bob hit Alice. (Yes, even this can be reporting at times and tattling at others.)
Reporting: Lizzie, assessing the situation, decided that Alice did nothing to deserve being hit (NOT usually the case!) Alice is incapable of protecting herself. Alice is physically hurt, not just offended. Lizzie can do nothing to help in the situation without the teacher's help.
Tattling: Lizzie doesn't know whether Alice triggered the attack or whether being hit is part of Alice's plan to get Bob's attention. Lizzie does know it's not a serious situation. Alice is not wounded. Lizzie wants attention from the teacher---or from Bob.
In your lessons, use examples from your school and from your students' experience. Students need lots of practice discriminating so have many examples. Everything that happens in your classroom following your initial lesson, use for discussion. When a student reports something, ask the kids, "Under what conditions would that have been tattling? Under what conditions would it have been reporting?"
Follow-up practice activities
Have your students role-play little scenarios in small groups and let others determine whether it was tattling or reporting and why. Have them tell what would be different about the scene if the other action were portrayed. Transforming stories from tattling to reporting and back again help kids to make the distinction based on the critical attributes of the two. Every time they have to remove the critical attribute of tattling and replace it with that of reporting, and then reverse it, they become more skilled at making this fine discrimination. They love to practice and discuss these little scenes. They can write about them, too. Give them a situation. Have them write it as an example of tattling and again as an example of reporting. Great thinking practice. Great writing practice.
Kids tattle not because they are mean but because they cannot distinguish between that and authentic and necessary reporting. When a student tattles/reports to you on an event, ask questions such as:
What did you do to help? What would happen if you did nothing? How serious is it? Is anyone hurt? Did you talk to the people involved?
Have THEM decide whether it is tattling or reporting. The more practice they get at discriminating, the better they will be.
Any examples of good reporting the kids do, give them specific feedback on it. "That was a perfect report. You assessed the situation very well. Someone was hurt and you could not do anything to help. Good for you in coming right to me."
A life skill
This whole concept is much more complex than it appears at first blush, just as tattling is more complex than a simple annoying childhood behavior. We are teaching our students some valuable lessons in responsibility by helping them to discriminate between more and more complex situations and determining when it is necessary to make a report. It's a situation we all face as adults. When do we report a fellow teacher who is not doing his/her job? Under what circumstances do you report a friend's adultery to the spouse? How do I determine whether or not to report a stranger in the neighborhood? It all begins with the first grader who tattles on a friend, and we need to start helping our kids to make these discriminations between tattling and reporting so they can make judgments about them as they grow older. When does a teenager tell a parent that their child is on drugs? When does a high school kid tell an adult his friend is threatening to bring a gun to school? When are they tattling and when are they reporting? They need help to make those kinds of decisions and also how to cope with what is ratting and not ratting on a friend. When is it ratting and when is it being a responsible friend? Not an easy dilemma for anyone!
I have no idea whether teaching students to discriminate between tattling and reporting will help our teenagers make better decisions about reporting dangerous activities that friends may be engaging in. But, in a country where violence seems to be getting out of hand, I say let's not leave any stone unturned.
(My thanks go to Dr. Madeline Hunter who described this lesson to us many years ago. I only thought it would keep me, the teacher, from going over the edge with the tattling. But, perhaps, the idea can have effects on our students that are much more significant. She may, with her wisdom, be able to contribute to the solution of a horrible problem. I hope that will be the case.)