On Tattling

“Mom, Emi did pinch Baby Muggins on the back of the head again,” my three-year-old daughter breathlessly announced.  She had just raced into the kitchen from the living room.  Behind her, looking guilty, came the accused, my five-year-old daughter Emi.

It is true that Emi has been told repeatedly not to pinch the baby on the back of the head.  I know it sounds weird, but she likes to roll the soft, loose skin at the bald spot back of his head in an affectionate little pinch.  She often pinches the back of his head with her hand as she’s kissing his cheek with her lips.  The pinches don’t necessarily hurt the baby.  But they sure irritate the heck out of me and my husband.

At this point the problem is not so much the pinching as it is the reality that she won’t stop doing something we’ve told her many, many times not to do.

Beau and I have tried everything we know to get Emi to stop pinching the baby.  It started when he was a newborn and boils down to being Emi’s way of expressing her genuine love for him.  It’s become apparent along the way that children have to be taught to touch babies correctly, and we certainly have tried to teach Emi.  But she just can’t help herself; she continues with the pinching (don’t ask a five-year-old why she’s doing something; she honestly doesn’t know).  So we have threatened her over it.  We’ve had long, serious talks about self-control with her.  We’ve disciplined her because of it.  A time or two I slapped Emi’s hand — even spanked her — trying to drive home the point that I’m serious about this and the pinching has to stop.  Yet I felt terrible punishing her for what I know is her own — albeit strange — way of showing love.  I found myself wondering:  If I tell her now, in her formative years, that her style of love is unacceptable, how might I damage her for the years to come?

On top of all that, I worry now that Emi could be an individual especially susceptible to habitual behaviors.  I certainly don’t want to exacerbate her vulnerability by drawing a line in the sand over this pinching problem in her fifth year.

And so… my latest tactic for handling the pinching problem?  I’ve determined I’m just going to have to love her through it.  Though it drives me crazy, though I think it’s weird, though it completely baffles me… I’ve decided the pinching is not a deal-breaker in my relationship with her.  I now try to just take a deep breath and put on a smile and gently remove her hand from the back of the baby’s head.  You’re not a bad girl, I try to communicate to her.  You’re completely normal.  You’re weird… (I mean, you ought to see some of the outfits the kid comes up with)… but in a wonderful way.

And you know what?  She’s getting better about it.  I think.

Yet here, as detailed in the first paragraph, was Emi’s little sister in the kitchen this morning, tattling on Emi for pinching the baby.

*sigh*

I, like probably most parents, grow weary of unpacking ethical situations like this for my kids.  As a person who sees more gray than black and white, I struggle to convey absolutes to them.  But I chose to bring these tiny humans into the world, and there’s no denying it’s my job to see such things through.

So.  First I dealt with five-year-old Emi:  Emi, do you remember what self-control means?  You do?  Can you tell me about it?  …

And next came the problem of the tattling, the “sin” that three-year-old Marsi had committed.

I have struggled for years now with knowing what to tell my kids about tattling.  I know a lot of parents who are very resolute about it — No Tattling!  Ever!

But — no surprise here — I don’t see it so clearly.

What, exactly, is tattling?  The dictionary says it means to “report another’s wrongdoing.”  It’s for sure that tattling can be really mean, and meanness is surely something we want to squelch in our children.  To that end, I tried to convey to Marsi this morning that it was not nice to race into the kitchen and announce to anyone within earshot that her older sister had been naughty.  The ol’ speck in your sister’s eye vs. the plank in your own analogy was probably lost on three-year-old ears, but I hope I get points for trying.

I might argue that a kid who’s accused of “tattling” might actually be trying to be helpful.  I think a parent must proceed cautiously lest she squash a kid’s attempts at contributing to what you’ve taught her is for the welfare of the family… and, accordingly, those first efforts to discern social rights from wrongs.

We’re trying to raise them up to be individuals of character and integrity, right?  To be the sort of people who won’t stand for wrongdoing?  For a three-year-old as yet unable to handle another kid’s bad behavior (don’t we all dream of having that kid who just knows how to stick up for the little guys and stand up to the bad guys?), the next best thing in the child’s mind would have to be alerting the closest grown-up to the wrongdoing… i.e. “tattling.”

Yet.  If we’re raising children of character and integrity, we ought to be teaching them to mind their own business.  As in, if Emi’s pinching Baby Muggins, it’s none of Marsi’s business.  Right?

Sheesh.  Leave it to me to overthink such a common childhood issue.

After my kids left the kitchen following this morning’s tattling debacle and my haphazard job of patching it all up, I thought long and hard about tattling.  The bottom line is this:  I want my kids to know they can tell me anything.  I don’t want to discipline them for reporting the truth to me, do I?  Because what if, at some point, they see somebody do something really seriously bad — but they’re reluctant to “tell” because they’ve been trained not to?

As I finished making lunch, I came to this conclusion:  I will teach my kids to tell me — and if I’m not available, then another trusted grownup — but to tell me quietly, to keep it just between the two of us.  Not screaming, “Mom!  So-and-so just did this naughty thing!” — but instead just whispering it in my ear as a question:  “Mom, this just happened and I’m not sure it was okay.”  And then I (Supermom, remember?) can help my little offspring to sort it all out and handle it all correctly.

Because, you know, I always know how to handle things correctly.

Ha!

So that’s that; it’s decided; I’ve officially chosen my position on tattling.

Phew.  Today’s predicament is untangled.  I tell ya, this parenting thing?  It’s just one ethical dilemma after another.

 

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© Tam Blake

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