Cowritten by Danielle Joy and Amelia Norfleet Dorn
How often did we hear this as a kid? This phrase, however, has serious negative consequences as we grow up. We learn to keep things secret because we don’t want to get in trouble or worry that we won’t be believed or even entertained. Amelia Norfleet Dorn, founder of IMPACT Personal Safety of Colorado, says, “It is unfair and frankly impossible to expect children to defend themselves from danger without support or help from adults — especially in our society that requires children to be utterly compliant. So, if we meet a young person who is brave enough to speak up to us, even if it seems to be about a trivial thing, the least we can do is listen. And if we fully grasp that in that moment we are quite possibly the first and last person this child will ever come to for help, we should seize it. Good advocates acknowledge a child’s courage and either empower them to return to the situation (if it’s minor) with good tools to handle it themselves or will do everything in their power to protect the child from the situation (if it is dangerous). When we dismiss children as tattletales, we absolutely ensure their silence about the serious stuff and that is exactly what perpetrators want.”
Perpetrators of all kinds are emboldened when their initial grooming or bullying practices are kept secret or are not believed. At school, people who bully feed off of the humiliation or embarrassment of their targets, because the more embarrassing the interaction or situation, the less likely the target will be to tell anyone. If targets are brave enough to speak up but are not taken seriously by the administration or caregivers, the perpetrator of the bullying may feel empowered to escalate or attack other students. The same is true for adult perpetrators. When caregivers tell children to not be a tattletale, the child can feel scared, embarrassed and/or humiliated because they’re being scolded for speaking up. This fear or humiliation can give the perpetrator further leverage and/or control over the child and ensure that their behavior continues unchecked.
The number one way we as a society can stop these bullying or grooming practices is to listen when children speak and encourage clear and open communication with positive feedback. If your child comes to you a lot, it is okay to coach them on how to ask for help (ex:avoid whining) and/or how to try handling it themselves. The end goal is to teach them how to set boundaries for themselves when they feel uncomfortable or scared. Eventually, the only “telling” you receive is either a request for more skills, a recount of how they already handled it, or issues that truly require your assistance.
When communicating with anyone who takes care of your children, whether for an hour or a school year (camp counselors, teachers, etc..), Amelia recommends a formula from Feather Berkower’s book Off Limits: Let them know that your children are encouraged to set clear boundaries about their safety and wellbeing and that they communicate openly with you. This tiny conversation goes a long way in deterring potential perpetrators who prefer silence and secrets. It's even better if what you said is true!