'Telltale-tattler" - there was no greater insult when I was a child, because as we were often told, nobody likes a telltale. It's a mantra that passes from one generation to the next, perpetuated by unpopular characters in Enid Blyton books. But is it really wise to turn our children away when they seek our help? Should we perhaps be encouraging them to tell tales?
"We want to help children feel able to share their emotional worlds with us, and to know that when they say what's going on for them, we're going to respond in an attuned way," says counselling psychologist Sinéad Benn. "Of course there are times when you try to get them to solve the problem themselves but it's about the hearing of the tale; the tale needs to be told. And then you can help them problem solve - whether it's something they can solve themselves or something you need to resolve."
Mum-of-three Dr Naomi Lavelle doesn't use the phrase "don't tell tales" with her children. "No one likes to hear children complain in a 'he did' 'she did' way, but if we tell children not to 'tell tales' from a young age, how do they learn to filter what to share with their parents?" says the founder of Science Wows, a website dedicated to sparking kids' interest in science. "I remember as a child how literally I took things, as most children do, so I was aware of this when our children started to grow. We made the decision to avoid the phrase 'don't tell tales', attempting instead to help our children learn for themselves how to filter the trivial from the more important."
Indeed, the concern that children can't filter is something about which writer and victims' advocate Joelle Casteix feels strongly. "Here's my take: I encourage my son and his peers to come to me with anything that concerns them. I tell them to tattle away, as long as they tell the truth," says Casteix, author of The Well-Armored Child: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Sexual Abuse. "Tattling is 'crime reporting', and if we discourage children from telling what they know, they become adults who don't tell what they know. We often wonder how scandals like clerical abuse cover-ups become so big - a part of the reason is that we have created generations of adults who believe that reporting crime - tattling - is bad. I tell my child: tell me anything that concerns you. For example, we have a 'no secrets' rule in our house. I told my son that if any adult tells him to keep a secret, he is to come directly to me."
Clinical psychotherapist at Solamh, Joanna Fortune sums it up well. "I think differentiating between surprises and secrets is an important one. Surprises are things that people will find out soon, like a birthday gift or a new baby. Surprises are usually fun things that make us feel happy. Secrets are things that people tell you you can never tell and can make you feel scared and uncomfortable. Some people even say that something bad will happen if you tell; that is never true of a surprise."
So by discouraging children from telling tales, we're potentially shutting down a very important resource for them, and perhaps missing an opportunity to be told about something more serious than a squabble over a toy - or the favourite tale in my house: "She looked at me in a mean way."
But does this imply that parents and teachers must be subjected to hearing about every small misdemeanour? There's something quite mortifying about meeting up with friends, and having your child come constantly with tales about a friend's child. So is there a way to teach children to distinguish a tale that should be told?
Joelle Casteix says there are two kinds of tale-telling. "There's the child who sees something wrong and reports it, and the child who is constantly saying, 'he did this' and 'she did that'. Both kinds need adult intervention. The child who is reporting dangerous or reckless behaviour needs to know she is being taken seriously and that the problem will be solved. The child who is seeking attention needs help and adult guidance in their interpersonal skills. Children can't say, 'I feel lonely and isolated. I'm confused and depressed,' - instead they use tattling to get attention."
Dr Naomi Lavelle feels that parents need to let children tell the small tales along with the big ones, while trying to teach them the distinction. "Every child is different, and their filters and rates of maturity can be very different, so there is no one, ideal formula," she explains. "We found we had to allow tale-telling of the small and insignificant things too - especially at the beginning. Once your child is confident that you are listening, then you can start to discuss the idea that some things are small and could maybe be sorted out by the child themselves."
Sinéad Benn, who works with The Centre for Professional Therapy, has some concrete examples to help children to identify tales that should be told.
"If anyone is doing anything dangerous, they need to tell. And explain to your child, it's not just when she herself is going to be hurt - if she's got younger siblings and she sees them doing something dangerous, she should tell. Damaging property is another one where it's important to tell. After that, it depends on your family rules."
"I would tend towards a rule that says, 'It's never OK to hit or hurt someone'," agrees Joanna Fortune. "When that happens, it's OK to tell the person that you are not for hitting, and tell a grown-up."
Beyond that, it's about teaching them that while it's absolutely fine to communicate the problem, they should also try finding the solution when possible. "I always think children should be encouraged to try solving themselves first," explains Fortune. "So if they come to you to tell you a problem, it's good to reflect back what you heard and then ask, 'Is there something you want me to do to help or can you deal with it yourself?' Let them decide, because sometimes in telling they just want to be listened to. Tell them that if it stays a problem they should come back to you, but praise their attempt to fix or address it themselves."
Indeed, there is much debate today about over-protecting children and stifling their ability to make independent decisions. So solving every problem for them is not helping them in the long run, but neither is shutting them down when they come to us for help. There's no quick fix for getting the balance right - it takes time to reach that point.
"It's a learning curve, and you're trying to teach your child a life skill; every child learns these things at their own rate, but the best foundation is for them to know they can share with you, and you are willing to listen," says Dr Lavelle. "Remember, it can take a long time to really grasp this - we can probably all think of adults that haven't quite perfected this skill - so don't be surprised if an older child still slips back to telling petty issues rather than choosing to sort them out themselves."
And what about other kids, who may be surprised to have their wrongdoings reported?
"Yes, you also need to be prepared to help your child deal with a negative response from the children they're telling on," says Dr Lavelle. "Again, giving your child the skills and confidence to explain themselves and their actions to their own peers can help. Phrases such as 'I don't like you doing that, I have asked you to stop, if you don't stop I will tell' may go some way towards this. But until they learn the skills completely, you need to be their filter. It's better that they tell too much than that they tell nothing at all!"
Sinéad Benn agrees. "A blanket ban on telling tales takes away some of their backup system. As adults, we have lots of social structures that we deem important in our society, to keep everything running smoothly. For children, we are the social structure or government - we are the people who make things safe. And sometimes part of that is helping them learn to be able to solve problems themselves, and sometimes we have to weigh in as the government. It's about making it safe that it's OK to talk. Even if, in the end, it's just to allow them to say 'I feel upset, I feel angry' and they may not need you to do anything - sometimes they just need to be heard."
Tips for parents:
If anyone is physically hurting themselves, another person, or damaging property, tell them they should always tell an adult.
● Don't teach children that it's awful if people argue - they should understand that conflict is a normal part of human relationships - teach them how to handle conflict and find solutions.
● If you feel it's appropriate, get teachers, minders, family members or friends on board. If you explain in advance what you're doing and the outcome you're working towards, they may be more supportive.
● At school, tell your children that adults are there to help. If the children can't solve the problem, go to a teacher.
● Distinguish between secrets and surprises - we never keep secrets between children and parents but sometimes we keep surprises, such as birthday presents.