Why do we tell children not to be tattle-tales; not to tell an authority figure when someone else has done something wrong? In theory it is because we want them to work on the issue themselves and find their own solutions, or because we suspect they are lying, or we think they’re simply trying to cause trouble over something trivial. A more cynical person might say it’s because we can’t be bothered parenting the problem. When I was a child I never thought it fair to be called a name by adults just because I was letting them know someone else had done something wrong. Now, as a parent, I still feel the same, only much stronger, because of my son’s autism.
The issue was highlighted for me in a recent incident. We were visiting family. Another child had done something inappropriate, that my son knew was inappropriate, out of the eye-range of us adults. My son came rushing inside the home to tell the adults what had happened. Before I could praise him for letting me know what had happened and either talk him through what to do or done it myself, another adult family member asked him if he was “telling tales.” And another piped up to say he was being a “tattle-tale.” The reaction confused my son, as well it should. Because I have been working hard on encouraging my son to do exactly what he did.
My son does not talk easily or readily about what he experiences, because he struggles with the words and with the point of recounting what he does. Not only do we encourage him to talk more, and talk about what he’s seen and done for the sake of language and social skills, but we also encourage it for the sake of his own safety: We need to know if another child is hurting or otherwise abusing our son – this is all the more important as he’s about to start a mainstream school for the first time, where teacher ratios and his own differences mark him out as a potential easy target for bullies.
Furthermore, my son is still learning the appropriate reactions to uncertain or unusual situations, so each time he shares with me I have the chance to guide him on what the behaviours mean and what he should do about it. Just because my son comes and tells me what someone else has done wrong, doesn’t mean I will decide it is appropriate to intervene for him, sometimes I will tell him what to do about it (if anything) and send him on his way.
Add to all this the fact that my son is honest (to a fault), he doesn’t lie about such things, it’s just not in his make-up to do so.
Whatever I might do when he comes to me, I would never greet his efforts to pass on this information, with the label of “tattle-tale.” I would never belittle his attempts to communicate and to share, with such a dismissive turn of phrase. I found it quite disturbing that other adults – adults who know him and his challenges – would be so ready to call him a tattle-tale. It concerns me then what other adults who don’t know him so well – like his new school teachers – will do when he goes to them with his concerns and experiences.
I guess all I can do – besides taking the chance to educate adults who I see doing this in front of me – is make sure my son knows that his own mother will always want to hear it. That I want to know how his day was, what happened, who did something naughty, help him understand whether it was actually naughty and what he should do about it. That way even if his teachers and other adults won’t hear him or value his words, I can advocate on his behalf as someone who does care. I can encourage him towards being able to cope with these situations himself, and guide him to do the right thing, so eventually he will no longer need or want to run every naughty event past me anymore. But he is nowhere near that point yet, and even if he was and when he is, I won’t be calling him names to get him to stop it.
I do not take my son’s voice for granted, there was a time when hearing meaningful words from him at all was rare, his social communication was hard-fought for, and hard-won. My son can tell me all the tales he wants.