2021年4月28日 星期三

Why Your Kid Is Such a Tattletale

There's a developmental reason behind children's obsession with rules.

Why Your Kid Is Such a Tattletale

Melissa Mathieson

My older daughter is obsessed with the truth. Talking to her sometimes feels like being cross-examined by the world's smallest and cutest litigator. Once I described something as "snobby" within her earshot and she hit me with a barrage of questions, "Why is it snobby? What did you mean by that? Why did you say it if you didn't really mean it?" Until she broke me and I told her exactly why I had said it (because something was very expensive and I was being judgmental and a little rude).

Because she is 8, the downside to her desire for accuracy is that she does not fully understand intention. She frequently accuses meteorologists of "lying" because the weather report is not accurate, and I gently explain to her that they're not lying, they're just … wrong. She also loves to impose her definition of "truth" on her little sister, informing me and her father immediately when her sister falls short of her outsize expectations.

Other parents of 7- and 8-year-olds have told me about similar experiences ("Why is my daughter such a narc?" one mom asked), so I checked in with three psychologists to find out what's going on, developmentally, for kids in this age group.

It turns out children who are roughly elementary-school age are in a phase of cognitive development called the concrete operational stage, and at the same time, they are embarking on a journey of moral reasoning that will be ongoing for the rest of their lives.

The pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children who are roughly 7 to 11 are able to apply logic to concrete, or real life, situations but they struggle to apply their knowledge to hypotheticals. "Everything is very black-and-white, and they may struggle to distinguish what is a minor rule-breaking situation and what is a major rule-breaking situation," said Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


Alongside cognitive development, children are working on the development of their moral compass. Building on Piaget's ideas, a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg observed three levels of moral development: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Preschoolers are mostly in the pre-conventional stage: They know what is right and wrong, but they are motivated to do "right" because of fear of punishment or desire for reward, Dr. Hunter said.

Children in elementary school are working on conventional development, which involves learning about societal rules and the emotions behind those rules. "Young kids acquire rules, but then over-generalize them — they apply those rules to everything," said Tina Malti, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and director of the Laboratory for Social-Emotional Development and Intervention.

Dr. Malti describes the next steps of moral development as a "lifelong process" of developing empathy and weighing intention in complicated situations, which is known as post-conventional moral thinking. Even as adults, she said, we deal with ethical dilemmas, in which doing something to help one person may hurt another person, and there's no clear right answer.

So how do we set our kids straight when they keep calling the weatherman a liar? Here are some tips.

Talk it out. If your child is trying to apply a rule in situations where leniency would be more appropriate, unpack it together. For example, when my older daughter is giving her sister a hard time for not following the family rules about eating with a fork, we remind her that 4-year-olds are still learning, and that it's our job to remind her, kindly. "Ages 6 to 9 is a great window of opportunity for learning about others' needs and desires," Dr. Malti said.


"Sometimes these parents find themselves overwhelmed with their children's concerns of rules being enforced or everyone doing the 'right' thing all the time," said Stephanie F. Thompson, a research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the University of Washington. She said that if you have a kid like this, it's important to talk through instances when you're bending your own rules based on extenuating circumstances, or protecting someone's feelings. My daughter prizes honesty to the extent that we're still having discussions about why it's OK to keep it to yourself when you think Mom's shirt is hideous.

Mind the gap. At the same time, especially with siblings, always be mindful that you're not being harder on one kid than on the other, and that your rules are fairly applied, Dr. Hunter said. So if one child is telling you they think your rules are not being enforced on their sibling, hear them out. "Periodically examine whether you really do have a lot more harsh rules for your older child," she suggested.

Role-play. If kids are having trouble distinguishing between big transgressions and small ones, try to run through scenarios with them. Dr. Hunter gives the example of a problem at a friend's house: If a friend broke his crayon, you can let your child know that's something he can deal with on his own without running to an adult for help. If that friend is lighting things on fire, that's a situation where he definitely wants to tell a grown-up.

In moments when children are running to tell you about every little problem, Dr. Thompson recommends reminding them that they probably wouldn't like it if their friends were telling them what to do, and saying something like, "It can be risky to be a full-time hall monitor if your goal is to make and keep friends."


This, too, shall pass. Most children grow out of this phase when they've had more cognitive development and life experience. Dr. Hunter, whose children have moved past their intense moralistic phase, said, "I kind of miss it."

I see the upside to my daughter's moral outrage, too. She's been learning about smog and pollution in school, and is already nagging me to get a compost bin. I hope she retains some of that moral certitude even as she learns to see shades of gray.

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