“Dad, Penny punched me,” Myron said.
It was a snowy Saturday afternoon and I was working at the dining room table. The kids had been running around and leaping onto Myron’s beanbag chair in the adjacent living room. I’d watched the incident develop. Myron inadvertently jumped on Penny and she retaliated by smacking him. Myron hit her back, harder. And Penny responded by punching him right in the nose. Eyes bleary from the pain, he came and told me.
At this point, according to current parental mores, I should have thanked Myron for explaining what happened, then gone over to Penny and had a sombre conversation with her about how we’re not supposed to hit. “Use your words,” I was supposed to say.
Instead, I told Myron to sit on the stairs.
“Why?” he asked, bewildered.
“For tattling on your sister.”
The antipathy I feel for snitching comes close to the sentiments mobsters feel towards police informants. I don’t want my kids to tattle on one another. I don’t want them to tattle on their friends, either. In fact, I think the ethic that predominates in schools and in many families—for children to respond to the slightest of slights by telling an adult, and for parents to praise them for that tattling—is short-sighted and destructive to long-term relationships among peers.
Snitching discourages a child from developing key conflict-management skills, such as being upfront about his hurt feelings and standing up for himself. It also damages the connection between siblings or peers, doing very little to bolster trust or empathy.
Beyond that, tattling to an adult never really leads to an acceptable resolution. When I wade into my kids’ argument, I can’t fully grasp the nuances that have led to it. And it’s exhausting for me to solve their problems. It’s better for everyone if they figure it out for themselves.
There are exceptions, of course. Bullying has become such a hot-button topic these last few years, and there are certainly clear cases (violence, emotional abuse) when a kid has no other recourse but to appeal to a teacher or an adult. The parents in our blended family have been clear with Penny and Myron that we want to discuss whatever’s bothering them. And if they were concerned about each other’s well-being—if Penny suddenly started playing in the street, say, and wouldn’t get out of there when Myron told her to—I’d definitely want them to come to me. It goes without saying that if, years from now, the kids get into trouble with drugs or a bad relationship, or anything else they didn’t feel they could get themselves out of, I would want to know about it, so I could help.
But I think of standing up for yourself on the schoolyard and in the living room as a muscle, and by encouraging kids to tattle, we’re depriving them of the opportunity to exercise it—making them, in my mind, more susceptible to bullying down the road.
I’m lucky because bullying isn’t a big deal in our particular family: The two siblings are evenly matched. My seven-year-old son is pretty tough for his age-group, while my five-year-old daughter has the ferocity and combat skills of a Viking berserker. Not that I endorse violence between them. We went skating later that snowy Saturday afternoon, and while on the ice, we had a conversation about their little wrestling match. “Hey, Pen, you know when Myron jumped on you earlier? Maybe you could have just told him that he hurt you,” I said. “You could have used your words rather than hitting him back. Because hitting mostly just leads to more hitting.”
She nodded, taking it in, and then five minutes later, when Myron bowled into her and knocked her to the ice, she kicked him with her skate. Okay—clearly we still have some work to do on this front.