This past weekend I spent most of my time reading a book that I have spent much of the past year saying that I would read: Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Now that I’ve read it I really have to wonder what in the world took me so long. Maybe it was school. Or recovery from school. Or switching jobs. Anyway, now I’ve read it, and I will be doing a review of the book sometime in the near future. For now I will just say, if you have wanted a good read about how children learn, this is the book for you.
Today I want to talk about one phenomenon that this book caused me to think about: tattling. Now, before you run out and buy this book because you think that it will help you solve your tattling problems in your classroom, let me make one thing clear: this book never specifically mentions tattling in it anywhere. What it did mention, however, caused me to think about implications in the classroom, one of those being tattling.
Peter Gray talks a lot in this book about how children, when they are left to play on their own with very little involvement or interruption from adults, will negotiate and compromise their way through play. The reason why they can do this is because they realize that if they make someone mad, then that person will leave, and play will stop. No child wants play to stop, so they work on rules and circumstances in their play that will make everyone happy. Gray poses this story in the book to show the point:
Annie (age five years, eleven months) and Beth (five years, two months) were video-recorded by researchers Hans Furth and S. R. Kane as they played an imaginary game in the dress-up area of their after-school day-care center. Annie started the game by saying, “Let’s pretend that we had a ball tomorrow night and we had to get our stuff ready.” Beth responded by picking up a dress and saying, “This was my dress,” thereby demonstrating her implicit acceptance of the play idea and her eagerness to get the prop she wanted most. For the next twenty minutes, the two picked their clothing and accessories and discussed what would happen at the ball. Much of this time was spent haggling over who would play which role and who would get to use which props. They haggled over fancy items of clothing, a telephone, a table, a pair of binoculars, and where each would sleep the night before the ball. In each little argument, each girl gave reasons why she “needed” or “should have” that prop or role, but did so tactfully so as not to offend the other player.
Then, when Annie and Beth had come to a fairly satisfactory agreement on these issues, another little girl, Celia (age four years, nine months) came into the dress-up area from outdoors and asked to join them. They let her in, and then all three began a new round of negotiations about props and roles to include Celia. Each girl felt strongly about such matters as which clothes she would wear, what exactly would happen at the ball, and who was older and had higher status in the play. For the play to go on, they had to reach consensus on every major issue.
Free to Learn, pg. 165
I have done much more in my classrooms to try to allow children the opportunities to work arguments out for themselves, but one of the classroom phenomenons that has constantly baffled me has been tattling. Why do children tattle? Reading this section of this book has put me on a path toward an answer.
As teachers, we position ourselves as the final authority in the classroom. Children are expected to follow what we say, the schedule that we impose, and the rules that we put into place. We are like the president or policeman of the class, I suppose. So if a child gets into a disagreement with another child and something happens that they don’t like, it is much easier to go to the policeman of the classroom than try to work it out on their own. And we perpetuate this by choosing sides in these disputes rather than teaching children how to settle the disputes on their own. It is a lose-lose situation for us and the children; the child we agree with comes out of the argument feeling good, and the child we don’t agree with comes out of the argument feeling angry or upset. No one has learned how to compromise, and no one is more mature about how to work through relationships after an exchange like this. Relationships are all about compromise and working through disagreements. All relationships are built on this, from friendships in preschool to marriages in adult life. We all must learn how to negotiate and compromise so that everyone in the relationship is happy; if we can’t do that then the other person in the relationship will walk away.
I’ve done a little bit to try to turn this trend in my classroom, but to be honest, the children in my classroom don’t tattle too much. But when a child comes up to me with a problem that I think can be worked out, I usually say to them, “That sounds like something that you need to talk to (insert name of other child here) about. How about you say to them (insert appropriate words that can begin a negotiation between the children)?” And then I will observe what happens in an unobtrusive way. Usually one of two things happens: either they go over to the other child and begin to work things out or they decide that it isn’t worth it to them and they walk away. I don’t push them one way or another, and I respect what they decide to do. Even though I recognize that they need to learn how to negotiate, they will only begin to do that when they recognize that I will not be their safety net. And sometimes it really just isn’t worth it, which is why I try to accept what they decide to do. It is their play, after all. Not mine.
This is one of those situations where we have to trust the capabilities of children and trust their ability to learn how to get through those sticky social situations. After all, they aren’t going to have the policeman watching their back and their interactions for the rest of their lives, and they have to learn how to get through those moments. It is time that we gave them the skills they need to work it out on their own, rather than just handing down our own judgments.