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March 10, 2014

Lisa Madras: Don’t be a tattle-tale? That’s a dangerous double-standard

NEW CASTLE — Is it ever OK to be a tattle-tale?

Tattle-tale ... isn't that an ugly word? The dictionary defines it as "a child who tells a grown-up about something bad that someone else has done."

Synonyms include words like betrayer, fink, snitch, and whistle-blower. I'm not sure why children get the distinction of being the only perpetrators of this so-called crime, because I've known a lot of adults who are tattle-tales, too, and I'm one of them.

Now, before you go gasping in horror and indignation, let's entertain the notion that you very well might be one of them, too.  

If someone came along and took a baseball bat to your car, you'd call the police, wouldn't you? How about if a co-worker was stealing your lunch from the company fridge every day? What if someone was extorting money from the same company? How about if you worked your butt off on a project and someone else took the credit for it? What would you do if you happened to witness a mugging or a rape?

You might be tempted to tell me to stop being ridiculous, that "that isn't the same thing." But I'd say you're wrong. In every one of these cases, someone has witnessed another person doing something wrong — and in each case, we all know that the right thing to do is blow the whistle on the criminal. In fact, to not do so makes you complicit in the eyes of the law in many cases.

So why in heaven's name are we teaching our children that not only should they keep their mouths shut, but that THEY are the wrong-doers when they tell a trusted adult that they've been victimized by someone else, or that they've seen someone else being victimized? Sure, today it might be little Suzy snatching a doll from your child's hands, which I guess doesn't seem like too bad a thing to some parents, although I'd still want to know, personally.

And maybe tomorrow it's little Tommy jumping too close to the edge of the trampoline ... and again, I still don't quite understand why most parents WOULDN'T want to know about this before little Tommy breaks his leg.

But what about next week, when it's a little bigger Suzy offering your child some weed, or a little bigger Tommy driving drunk with your child in the car? What about the week after that when your child is being bullied, or God forbid, being molested? We've very effectively taught them to keep their mouths shut, haven't we? In fact, we've made sure that they're ASHAMED to tell. We've told them that if they do, they're a tattle-tale.

My 8-year-old daughter was called a tattler by a substitute teacher last week when she and her friend were both shoved by another child, and my immediate and instinctual reaction was rage. I thought about calling the school and causing a fuss, but then I realized the futility of that. I wasn't going to change who this teacher is, even though I wanted to "tattle" on her, and by all rights I should have. This time, my daughter wasn't seriously hurt in any way, and most importantly she told ME.

She told me because she trusts me, and she knows that I will never shame or judge her for telling on someone. I explained to her that this teacher's actions were irresponsible because teachers are supposed to be trusted adults. I went on to explain to her that not all adults are people that you can go to when you're scared or upset, and that the important thing is that she does have someone she can always go to, and that person is me. And I told her to tell me if it continues to happen.

I'm not gonna sugar-coat it here — my heart aches more than a little bit every time I hear an adult ask a child, "Are you tattling?" I pray that that child will somehow understand that there is this unspoken double standard in place where adults only want to be told if it's important to THEM.  But children don't automatically understand this distinction, and more importantly, little things are important to children.

And unless adults clearly explain which things are important enough to tattle about, and which ones aren't, our children will be forever bound to a code of silence that is a dream come true for child-molesters, bullies, and the other criminals of the world.

You can feel free to disagree with me on this, but it's something I feel very strongly about, and that's my right, too. I take great comfort in knowing that my children will tell me anything, and give me the to opportunity to explain to them if the information was something that should have been shared or not. And in time, they'll learn to know the difference on their own.

In the meantime, my children and I will continue to "tattle" when the situation calls for it, and I'll sleep easy at night knowing that while one of us may be victimized at some point in our lives, we're going to loudly and clearly — and without shame — blow the whistle on the aggressor. The substitute is getting a free pass from me just this one time, because my daughter and I ranked the incident at the bottom of the scale. But she's lost the trust of one child, and I only pray she doesn't lose the trust of another who might really need her someday.

I say we stop using this heinous word altogether, and get behind making the world a safer place for our kids, no matter what it's called.


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