“Mom – I am going to tell you something but you have to promise not to do anything. Do you promise?”
What parent hasn’t heard that? It’s a no-win situation. If you promise and your child tells you that someone’s health or safety is at risk, you have to break the promise. But then you’ve violated their trust and you may rightfully worry that they won’t tell you anything ever again. If you don’t promise, then your child won’t tell you what’s going on. You’re parenting in the dark and that’s dangerous.
Meanwhile, schools encourage students to tell teachers and administrators when they experience social conflicts, bullying, and other common yet painful problems. Our children are also told to come forward when they see something wrong – we want bystanders to become “upstanders” (a word adults use with only the best of intentions that usually triggers eye rolls with kids and teens).
So when we encourage our kids to report a problem, they look at us like we have lost our minds. No wonder parents are confused.
Here’s the truth people don’t like to talk about: “Telling” is more complex than we like to admit and our children know it.
This is why:
Some kids are really good at getting away with the same behavior that gets somebody else sent to the principal’s office.
There are two parallel justice systems operating in a school: the administration’s version and the students’ version. The administration’s justice system gets kids officially in trouble. But if you’re found guilty in the students’ justice system, the punishment is becoming a social outcast. If you’re labeled a snitch, at the least, there can be social consequences like being ridiculed, excluded, and targeted for other forms of social cruelty, especially on social media. To a young person, that can be the worst punishment.
What do we say when our child comes to us with a problem?
Remind yourself of three things:
- Often children are telling their parents because they want comfort.
- They don’t necessarily want you to fix the problem.
- And they really don’t want you freaking out, calling the school, screaming at parents, and sending emails to both in all capitals.
Remind them of a few things:
- Everyone has the right to their feelings. No one gets to say to them, “You just took it the wrong way” or “You’re overreacting.”
- People can get accustomed to putting up with bad behavior from others. And if it seems “normal” you usually don’t think you have the right to complain. Even if you did complain, it’s easy to convince yourself that no one would take you seriously.
- All of these dynamics can easily trick people to keep quiet and become increasingly miserable
- They deserve to be treated with dignity.
Here’s how to start the conversation:
When they say: "I want to tell you something but you have to promise not to do anything"… we say,
I’d love to make that promise but I can’t because you may tell me something where we need to get someone’s help. But I can promise that if I decide another adult needs to be involved, you will know and decide with me who that person is going to be. I can also promise that I will listen to you and be by your side every step of the way.
How do we frame it?
Thanks for telling me what you’re dealing with. It takes a lot of strength. I think I understand why you wouldn’t want to tell adults at school. That said, hoping something goes away doesn’t always make it go away. If you don’t want to tell an adult at school now, I want us to think through some things you can do to take care of yourself. So I am going to ask you a few questions to help figure it out.
Here are some questions to ask:
- Has the behavior been going on for awhile? How long has it gone on for?
- Have you thought about telling an adult before? Why?
- If you decide not to tell now, what would have to happen for you to think you should tell later?
- How is this problem impacting your life now?
- If they’re a bystander: Do you think someone is being physically or emotionally hurt or socially excluded to the level that the person can’t come to school without worrying about it?
- What are your concerns if you do come forward? What’s the worst thing you worry about happening?
- If those worries become real, who is the adult you believe would be best to help you address the problem?
I also see why you think that there are positives for staying silent right now. The negatives are that it puts all the power in other people’s hands, and if we don’t come forward, the adults in school can’t help. At some point I think it’s probably good to give them that chance. Maybe a way to think about this is: who is the person at the school that you trust the most to tell this kind of information to? Why don’t we think about who that would be as the next step right now and decide what would have to happen where you do tell this person what’s going on.
But no matter what, I want you to know how much I respect the fact that you told me and thank you for trusting me to handle this information. You have the right to go to school and feel safe.
So let’s admit how messy it is for our kids to come forward and how truly brave they are when they do it. Let’s give them the support they need to think through the process and make the decision that feels safe.