When kids see other kids do something mean, unfair, or maybe just annoying, they’ll often run and tell an adult. Maybe one sibling accidentally broke an expensive vase and the other sibling told. Or maybe little Susie was kicking Tom’s seat and someone whispered it to the teacher.
Caregivers tend to frown on these tattletales, especially if the offense is minor. They tell the little informants that some things need to just be ignored.
But a new study suggests that, at least sometimes, kids are tattling not to save their own skin, punish others or annoy caregivers. Instead, they’re unconsciously enforcing the rules and norms that we need to cooperate together as human beings.
“Children’s tattling is often viewed as an undesirable behavior. But at least under some circumstances, tattling can also be seen as evidence that children recognize important social norms and that they care enough about those norms to try and make sure that others follow them as well,” Amrisha Vaish, a co-author of the study, said in a press release.
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For the study, the scientists recruited 32 3-year-old children and had them play individually with actors controlling sock puppets. Each puppet and the child were given a key to open a clear plexiglass box. The child learned that puppets’ keys all worked, but the child’s did not.
One “moderator” puppet would give either a sheet of paper or a ball of clay to the child and two other puppets, and everyone worked to either draw a picture or make a sculpture. After about two minutes, one puppet would say she was done with the art and wanted to put it away in the box. The puppet would tell the other two puppets not to touch her art, then leave.
Shortly after, the moderator puppet would pretend to fall asleep as the others continued working on the art, leaving the child alone with one puppet. After a while, the puppet would announce that it didn’t like the other puppet’s art, would unlock the box and destroy it.
Scientists tracked whether the child protested when the puppet destroyed the artwork and how they reacted when the ‘victim’ came back into the room. Sometimes the child would clearly name the puppet, and other times they would only hint at what happened. No child tattled just to avoid blame, such as by saying, “I didn’t do it!”
The researchers found that more than half of the children tattled or hinted at tattling, even when it was clear they would not be blamed for destroying the art (since their key could not have opened the box).
“Rather, children’s tattling was entirely focused on informing the victim about the transgression and/or the transgressor. Our results indicate that children’s tattling serves the co‐operative function of enforcing norms rather than the more selfish function of getting themselves out of trouble,” the researchers wrote.
Most previous research on tattling focused on the idea that kids did it mostly because they wanted attention from adults or wanted someone else to get in trouble.
But the scientists say this shows that children, even at a young age, are aware of social norms about how to behave and are willing to enforce them, even if they know they won’t be blamed for anything that anyone else did. Those bonds allow people, who are caught between being naturally social also naturally wary of free-riders, to stick together in civil society - and children do seem to catch on quickly.
“The research sheds new light on why young children tattle and raises the question of whether tattling should necessarily be discouraged in early childhood,” the researchers wrote.