It’s Not All Mary Poppins


I don’t tend to get a lot of tattling in the daycare. This is not because the children are such kind and giving types, nor even my extraordinarily well-honed child-rearing techniques. It’s a developmental thing. It’s about Rules. Tattlers understand about Rules. Generally, children are four, or very close, before they become aware of (and noxiously devoted to) Rules. Whereas two- and three-year-olds are quite capable of understanding that they are not to jump on the couch, it takes a four-year-old to grasp that this is A Rule. Rules can be applied to others: ever wondered why your previously delightful three-year-old has suddenly become so damned bossy? And, aha! They can tell on people who break A Rule. Hence the tattling.

George, at three and a half, has just begun to experiment with it. It isn’t getting him very far, and I know that, unrewarded, it will fade. Liam, though, is five-almost-six, and a tremendous tattle-tale. It must be paying off somewhere in his life. A dozen times a day he races to me with urgent news of someone or other’s petty misdemeanor. My response is always the same, a low-key acknowledgement of his proclamations, and a direction to go back and play. I make a point of NOT going to check on whatever he’s tattled about. This works well with children in whom tattling is not well-established. It lessens the likelihood of it becoming entrenched.

However, when a child comes with the tattling firmly established, direct communication can’t be beat. The best way to approach a child in the Rules-and-Tattling stage? I have some Rules for Tattling!! Brilliant, no??

Rules for Tattling:

If someone is bleeding, tell me.
If someone is in imminent danger, tell me.
Otherwise, don’t.

We had the chance to try this out on Friday afternoon. Liam came charging over to me, the desperate importance of his message and its earth-shattering urgency broadcast by every quiver of his stocky little body.

“Mary!! Arthur’s taking the couch-cushions off the couch!!!!”

I respond in as bored a tone as I can manage – which is pretty convincing, because I am bored, bored out of my mind, with all the tattling… “Liam. Is anyone bleeding?”


“Is anyone in danger?”


“No one’s going to get hurt?”

“Ah, no.”

“Then you’re just tattling, and I don’t need to know.”

With each question and answer, the dissatisfaction and astonishment increases in his face and voice. Am I not going to do anything? Am truly I not going to Enforce a Rule?? (This isn’t merely a power thing: it really does bug them when rules are flouted.) He tries once more to get me to see the horror of the situation.

“But Arthur’s taking the couch cushions off!!”

“Liam. Liam, listen to me. Liam: I. Don’t. Care.”

Oops. I was doing just fine until then. “I don’t care” was a tactical error, and I knew it the instant it fell from my weary lips. It was entertaining, though, to watch Liam wrestle with this idea. His expressive face was a riot of conflict: astonishment, dismay, horror, exasperation, and then increasingly, wonderment, a sense of possibility, and enthusiasm. Suddenly he reached his conclusion, the only sane and natural one when presented with an inert adult who’d just said she didn’t care, and erupted, his fists in the air, bellowing out as he races down the hall to the couch:



July 25, 2005 Posted by | Developmental stuff, George, Liam, manners, Mischief, socializing | 16 Comments