Care and Feeding

Ugh, Is My Child a Tattletale?

A smug-looking child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I get my 4-year-old to stop tattling? I don’t know if it’s tattling exactly, but I feel like at the end of the day I get a full report of who followed the rules at day care (my child) and who did not (everybody else). I hear about who pulled hair, who was in timeout, who said something mean. I’ve tried saying, “Oh they’re still learning,” for a while. Lately I’ve been trying something like, “What’s something nice Jonnifred did today?” I don’t want my kid to feel like they can’t tell me the bad things that happen to them, but I also don’t want them so focused on other kids’ bad behavior. Is this a phase or should I be doing more?

—Parent of a Tattletale

Dear PoaT,

I am so happy to let you know you do not need to worry about this! You are correct that this behavior is not exactly tattling, rather tattling-adjacent, and this phase will last for … the rest of their natural life.

Half of our adult conversations, at minimum, are describing things other people do wrong: Brenda microwaves leftover salmon in the break room! George should not be trying to work things out with Steph! People on the internet try to raise vegan cats! And so on. If we don’t get a chance to vigorously process the wrongness of others, how can we possibly revel in the rightness of ourselves and our loved ones?

Your instinct to steer the conversation in more productive directions is a good one. I usually allow myself and my dinner companion a good half-hour to process the failings and limitations of others before we are required to talk about something else, be that the Bloody Benders or my elaborate and pointless skin care regimen or (if my dinner companion is small) how many ants you would have to eat before you were more ant than person. Have the conversations you wish to have with your child, prioritize positivity and achievement, and then half-listen to Jonnifred’s many malfeasances with a clear conscience.

Should you wish to bond big time with your child at this point in their development, tell them some of the things you did wrong at their age. Stories about parents getting into trouble are wildly, timelessly popular with kids of all ages and interests and sensibilities. If, like me, you were a dutiful, boring child, consider making something up. They’ll love it.

(Do check with their teachers to make sure they are not also engaging in active tattling, which is deeply irritating and best to quash as early as possible.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I balance encouragement and support versus realism when I have a teenager who wants a career that is very selective? We pay for private music lessons and are sending him to band camps this summer, but a job as a musician in a symphony seems to be a long shot.

—Not Exactly Yo-Yo Ma

Dear NEYYM,

When it comes to creative interests, I tend to rather grimly counsel most young people to prioritize studies that will allow them to feed and clothe themselves, as you can play the oboe after work for an hour more easily than you can play at selling term life insurance. That’s the advice I would give your son, were he asking, and I encourage you to share it with him, but let’s face it: He’s going to make his own choices on this subject.

It may be helpful to talk to your son about how most professional musicians who do not get hired by a prominent symphony in a major city also need day jobs, whether that be teaching or fundraising or whatever else keeps the lights on, and he should be prepared for that. The numbers are sufficiently grim that simply presenting the employment stats can sometimes do the trick.

Take heart, for if your son is a true musical genius, all of your attempts to sweetly undermine him into a STEM career will accomplish nothing except provide color for his memoir. The ones who make it never needed to be reminded to practice; nothing can stop them. Right now you’re paying for expensive enrichment programs, which is more than pulling your weight. College, for better or for worse, is a time in which young people begin the process of being accountable to themselves and not their parents. He will either respond to that by getting even more serious about his craft, or by disengaging from it over time. Stay positive but practical in your music-related conversations, and time will tell the rest of the story.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I had a difficult conversation with my daughter last night and I’m not sure I handled it well. Rosie is 15 and a freshman in high school. She’s been very down for the past few days, and finally tearfully confessed to me that she feels far behind her peers in almost every area and that she can’t think of one single thing she is really good at.

The thing is, she is right in a way. She jumped into her freshman year enthusiastically, joining the cheer and lacrosse teams, singing with the school choir, and participating in student council. We love that she is trying so many new things, but the fact is that she isn’t a particularly gifted athlete, and while she’s a decent singer, she pales in comparison to the really talented kids who get all the solos. Academically she works hard but doesn’t really excel in—or even show a passion for—any of her subjects. Nothing seems to come easily or naturally to her. I say these things not to denigrate her, but because they are obvious to her as well, and I don’t want to patronize her by insisting otherwise.

I told her that we care much more about her bright, bubbly personality, her kindness, and her passion for social justice than we do about her lacrosse skills; that most people have to work for years to get better at math or sports; and that she has her whole life to find her talents and strengths. But deep inside I’m a little worried about it. By this age most kids have at least one thing they’re really good at, don’t they? Should I be concerned that she hasn’t found hers yet, and what should I be doing to help and support her?

—Stuck in the Middle With You

Dear SitMWY,

Rosie sounds absolutely lovely: hard-working, kind, and fond enough of you to feel comfortable sharing her innermost fears. You’re doing a great job.

Despite what pop culture tells us (from Dirk Diggler’s “one special thing” to Marvel’s Runaways), not everyone has a thing they’re really good at. And that’s OK! Everyone loves Samwise Gamgee, and his chief skill was hiking without complaining.

I know, I know, his gift was friendship. And that, of course, may be what your daughter is best at as well. Many people live good and kind and productive and warm lives without being particularly great at anything in particular. I harp a great deal on actively modeling your values for your children, but I must return to it again. You are absolutely on the right track by letting her know how much you try to center hard work and generosity of spirit and loyalty and integrity in your daily life, and that her engagement with those things matters far more to you than being the only person who can handle doing the yearbook layout.

I truly believe you can communicate that being relatively average scholastically and athletically and musically is as normal as it gets without delving into how much the world needs ditch diggers like some kind of Judge Smails. Rosie may indeed discover an interest or subject in which she has the capacity to excel, and bully for her! Plenty of freshmen in high school are a decade away from knowing what they want to do with their lives, and even more freshmen know exactly what they want to do with their lives and then go on to do something entirely different.

It’s not a great idea to be a mediocre brain surgeon, perhaps, but it’s absolutely fine to be a good-enough hard-working employee at the vast majority of jobs. What interests her? What inspires her? Who inspires her? Encourage her to ask and answer those questions, and let the question of aptitude slide for a bit. Natural talent only gets you so far anyway; being willing to learn a job and put in the hours will stand her in better stead than perfect pitch or being able to burp the national anthem.

You’ve got a good kid. You’re a good parent. You’ll both be fine.

Dear Care and Feeding,

What are your thoughts about Santa Claus? Do you think it’s OK to trick your child into believing a fat man with a white beard travels the world and gives children gifts? When I was young, I had a lot of fun thinking there was a Santa Claus, but I’m not sure if I want to do the same for my child. Is it ethical to lie about the existence of Santa for the sake of their enjoyment?

—The Grinch

Dear TG,

This is the sort of decision that is best made once you have an actual child of an appropriate age in front of you. My husband and I had elected not to do the Santa thing, for very high-minded reasons involving honesty and transparency and so on, and then immediately caved as soon as we had breathing human toddlers whose joyful capacity for imagination and magic threw our own, gray, workaday souls into stark relief. If you get to that point and you think it will enrich their lives, tell them Santa is real. If you have more qualms than delight at the idea, tell them Santa is a charming way in which many people show their love for each other via myth and tradition.

Whichever, I wouldn’t get hung up on the ethics of lying about it. Most people lie to their children all the time; this lie just gets the most attention because it’s more endemic in our culture. I do not think telling your child that the flattened cat in the middle of the road is taking a nap or that you and your husband go to sleep about 10 minutes after they do and certainly do not stay up and watch R-rated movies while eating popcorn will ultimately undermine your or their integrity. And only a very tiresome person resents their parents for having participated in a widespread community myth that is usually quite benign.

Should you opt out—which is very reasonable and no one should ride your ass about it—make sure to teach them not to spill the beans to others for the next few years, or you’ll get angry phone calls.

Should you opt in, make sure they know that plenty of people have different holidays and ways of celebrating them. You don’t want to be the parent whose jerk kid informs an observant Jewish kid that they do not get presents on Christmas because they fail to believe. (Plenty of Jewish families do Santa, but Santa is not as universally secular as many people want to think.)

And, for pity’s sake, if they haven’t figured it out by an appropriate age (here is a fascinating discussion of the factors that go into determining that age), tell them before some 9-year-old punk who’s already shaving does. I recommend something along the lines of “Now you are old enough to know the truth that we are all Santa, the importance of generosity and love, etc., etc.”

And make sure to leave out milk and cookies either way. Someone will eat them.

—Nicole