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Tattletale - or Concerned? When You Should Talk to Other Parents about Their Child's Behavior

What do you do when your child's friend does something they shouldn't be doing?

This week, a Wakefield mom wrote in with an issue:
“What do you do when you know something about your child’s friend that you believe the friends parents should be made aware of?   My children are older teens now so the issues that arise can be quite serious, immoral or even illegal. I would love to hear what other parents think on the matter of 'ratting out' your kid's friends?"

The Moms' Council would like to encourage all readers to send questions to the editor (sara.jacobi@patch.com) or to any of the authors. Additionally, please feel free to chime in at the end of the article in the comment section – we love to hear your opinions too.  Are we spot on with this or not?

Laurie Hunt
GREAT idea for a topic.  I feel like it honestly depends on the issue, the child and your relationship with the family.  

If I felt someone was in imminent danger I, quite frankly, would not care who may or may not like what I have to say or what I do. I would do what I felt was right to protect the person in danger. If danger was not imminent I may start with my child and even their friend. Like it or not we’d sit down and discuss what is going on and I would do my best to help them. With older children you may also have to make a decision not everyone is comfortable with and that is how much do you want to get involved? 

I don’t think there is a right or a wrong answer as far as how or when to get involved but I do think if your child is an older teen it is a great time to bring them into the conversation and the decision. The reason I suggest this is sometimes the decision may also involve a choice and that choice may be your comfort level with your child continuing the friendship. A candid conversation with your child may help them deal with this.

I also think what can help is to talk about “what happened right before…” as this often explains a lot in a situation. An over-simplified example of this is a story about a young child who was stealing money. Imagine what most people think when they hear about someone who steals money. Now, let’s step back and find out what happened right before this child stole money and guess what?! The child was often left alone – sometimes for more than a day, alone and without food. This child was hungry and stole money to buy food. Now what do you think? 

Peggy Barresi
Consider two scenarios. In the first, a 7-year old is dangerously swinging his toy sword at kids in the playground. Children could get hurt. It seems fairly clear cut that you’d let the mother know, “Hey, Cindy, little Billy over there is having a field day with his sword. You may want to check on that.” In the second scenario, you are stopped at a red light and smell pot coming from the car next to yours. A kid you know is in the car. What do you do? 

After you’re finished cursing the timing that’s put you in this horrible position, realize that every situation is different. If you know a child or teen is undertaking behavior you think their parents should be aware of, you need to consider some factors before getting involved. The most important question is whether the behavior can hurt the child or others. In such a case, you have a moral obligation to do something. You could potentially be preventing a tragic situation. In the case of the pot smoking, I would make a phone call to the kid’s parents. Smoking pot while driving is simply stupid, and the likelihood of alcohol being involved seems high. These kids could get into an accident, hurt themselves and others, and even get arrested. 

If you decide the behavior is serious, but not immediately dangerous, then you need to evaluate your relationship with the child’s parents. My close friends and I have a pact that if any of us sees one another’s kids doing something they shouldn’t be doing, we make a phone call right away. We each know the other will appreciate the information and not blame the messenger. Consider making such a pact with your good friends. It takes the guesswork out of the equation. 

There are parents, however, who believe their kids can do no wrong. Dealing with these kinds of parents is tricky. One way to handle difficult parents is by involving the school whenever possible. My daughter had a friend in middle school who was being cyber-bullied by a group of students. I knew all the kids involved, and two of them have parents who think very highly of their little angels. I urged my daughter to convince the bullied girl to notify the school. The school took it from there and handled the problem. If you can, let the “authorities” do your dirty work. It’s much easier for parents of “perfect” kids to hear bad news from the school principal than from you. 

If the behavior is not dangerous, but wrong, you also need to weigh the consequences. This past spring I went on an 8:30 am shopping trip to Shaw’s. While there I spotted five 9th grade boys, all of who were supposed to be in school on that Friday morning. I know three of their mothers. The kids saw me, too, and I could tell they were a little freaked out, thinking they’d been busted. I thought about it for a while, and decided not to tell their parents. Skipping school seems fairly harmless, and they’d probably get caught for it anyway. They weren’t hurting anyone, aren’t habitual skippers, and the scare of seeing me was probably enough to set them straight. 

I have yet to be in a situation where I know a kid is doing drugs or something to hurt herself or others. If that time comes, I will summon the courage to get involved. If I have a close relationship with the child, I might speak with her first and perhaps ask that we go to her parents together. If I know the parents better than the child, I will clue them into the situation. I will also continue to evaluate other instances of bad behavior on a case-by-case basis and hope I end up doing the right thing. Another example of why nobody has ever said parenting is easy.

Regina Martine
As kids get older they get into stickier situations and it gets tricky as a parent to know when to get involved — especially if it is not your own child.

My kids are still at an age where they tell me everything and I know all of their friends’ parents, so this hasn’t been an issue for us yet. For now, my only reason for telling another parent what their child has been doing would be out of concern for their or my own child’s safety. I trust that other parents would do the same for me. 

However, my oldest starts middle school this fall and things will soon get a lot more complicated. Things can get nasty in middle school, especially for girls— and kids start spending a lot more time with friends away from home. I think there are a lot of factors to consider before “ratting out” another kid. Did you come by this information by accident (such as overhearing a conversation) or did your child tell you out of concern for her friend? Or did the other child come to you as a trusted adult? Is there a real reason why she won’t tell her own parents? If the issue is serious enough and the parents need to know, but you don’t feel comfortable talking to them yourself or you don’t want to betray the child’s trust, you might consider talking to the child’s teacher or the school principal and let them intervene. In the meantime, I am happy that our biggest problems are still about who got a bigger cookie and which game to play first.

Tasha Schlake Festel
I tell my kids all the time that nobody likes a tattletale. Not only can it be super annoying to the adult tasked with addressing it, tattling can be social suicide for a child. While clearly there are exceptions to the “no tattling” rule, I always advise them to step carefully when telling on their peers (or siblings). Nobody wants a reputation as a nark, a snitch, a whistleblower, a rat, a bigmouth, a squealer, a busybody or a windbag. 

I think the same applies to parents tattling on kids. Let the little stuff slide. Nobody likes a tattletale mom either. I know someone – a parent – who will seek out other parents on a playground to tell on their child, even when no one is upset or harmed in any way and all parties have moved on. Apparently this person is compelled to point out all perceived wrongs. It’s really annoying. And it forces the parent of the tattled-on to take action by either addressing the “issue” with their child or telling the tattletale parent to go pound sand. 

My kids are young – only 5 and 7, so the issues we deal with on a day-to-day basis are pretty bland. What’s-her-name didn’t use very nice manners. So-and-so ate too many cookies on our playdate. Whatchamacallit used a swear word and it starts with “f.” Puh-lease. These are not rat-worthy offenses. Sure, mom might like to know, but she ain’t gonna find out from me. 

More serious issues – like those of safety – must be addressed. We have to work together as a society of parents and look out for each other, especially when it’s someone you care about or touches your family in some way. Ideally, we’ll all be receptive to well-intentioned narking. I’d like to think I would be. However, that’s not always the case. 

A few years ago, I spoke up and told a friend about some of the interactions I’d witnessed between her babysitter and her children. I knew she wasn’t going to like it, but I thought we were good friends and she would take it in the spirit in which it was intended. I cared about her and her children, and if my sitter had been treating my children like that, I sure as hell would have wanted to know. Unfortunately, it blew up in my face and she was less than receptive to my observations. Somehow the whole thing got turned on me and what a crappy mother I was and that I should worry about my own children and get my nose out of her business. Um, wow. Didn’t see that coming! 

Despite that less than pleasant reception, I’m pretty sure I would do it again. OK, maybe not with her, but I know I did the right thing. If anything had happened to the kids and I had kept my mouth shut, I never would have been able to forgive myself. You can’t make someone address a serious situation, but you can make them aware of it.

Evaluate each situation as it arises. Deep down, you’ll know when you truly need to step in. Kids are kids. They mess up. They need parents to know what’s going on and look out for them. If their parents aren’t doing it, then the rest of us should be willing to step up. It won’t always be comfortable. But neither is knowing you sat back and did nothing.

Jillian Sallee June 29, 2011 at 11:24 PM
Peggy, I love the idea of a pact amongst your core group of friends and as my kids get older I am totally stealing that strategy!
jeff June 30, 2011 at 12:51 AM
Parents absolutely need to communicate with their own teens about all things bad when it comes to behavior or illegal substance, and they most definitely need to talk with other parents. Myteensavers believes that parents should be looking out for each other. The fact that someone would see this as "ratting out" another family's teen is silly.
Tasha Schlake Festel June 30, 2011 at 01:47 AM
Jillian, I'll be in your group if you'll be in mine! :) And BTW, despite what Peggy might say, she is very wise. I <3 her.
Tasha Schlake Festel June 30, 2011 at 01:48 AM
Jeff, you are so right that it's silly! Unfortunately, not everyone wants to hear that their child isn't the angel they think s/he is. While it is the right thing to do, it's not always easy. And it should always start and end with a conversation with your own children. Thanks for reading!
Peggy Barresi June 30, 2011 at 02:06 PM
Jillian, thankfully we haven't had to activate that pact yet. Our kids know about it, and they also know Wakefield is a small town. We practically know half the people here, so that alone is a deterrent!
Michele June 30, 2011 at 04:16 PM
As a parent of a soon-to-be freshman next year, I have experienced many situations where I could have approached a parent and told them about something I observed their child doing. On a few occasions I told, and on others I didn't. It really depends on the parents and your relationship with them. Like Peggy, I do have friends that have told me, and vise versa, that if we see "our" kids doing anything that is a no-no, please let us know. But my children do have friends that I would never approach their parents, because I don't think it would be in the best interest of the child. Some people aren't wired to be parents, or be diplomatic, and it's pretty clear who those people are from the get-go. If I think I'm going to get blasted for trying to "help" then I"ll mind my own business. If I think the parent would welcome this info so they can have a "teachable moment" with their child, then I"ll bring it up. I agree that letting the school handle it is an easier way if possible, at least it's not percieved as a judgment by another parent.

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