To Tell or Not to Tell: It Shouldn’t Be a Question


by Dr. Dathan Paterno

One of the factors that determine whether bullying will increase in intensity and frequency is the degree of involvement peers have in the process. Peers can intervene directly by stopping bullying as it occurs, ostracizing the bully, supporting the victim directly, or by telling adult authorities about the bullying. As many of you know, peers tend to stay out of the process altogether, which further reinforces the bully’s behavior. Essentially, their lack of involvement sanctions the bully and says that it is OK on their end.

This must stop. Peers must take some responsibility for their neighbors. Remember the golden rule? In case you missed that Sunday School, it goes like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not a mere suggestion; it is a command. It is a child’s social and moral obligation to stand up to bullies and to stand up for the victim.

Now, I understand that children will be equipped differently to respond to bullying. Stronger, bigger children will be able to intervene directly. The more savvy and trusted children can tell teachers, principals, school social workers, and parents about the bullying. Some can take the victim aside—at any time, not just after an incident of bullying—and offer that child all kinds of emotional support. Some of the more creative children could start a campaign against bullying, by having peers sign a petition, such as “End Ritual Child Abuse! STOP Bullying!” or “Bullies Are NOT Cool! They Are Weak!” Any and all of these can help both curb bullying behavior and, just importantly, support the victims of bullying.

In my work with children, I hear countless stories of children who are afraid to tell teachers and other adults about being bullied and abused. It is incredibly shameful to admit, partly because it is an admission of weakness and an inability to handle the situation on their own. However, there is an additional reason why many children avoid telling adults.

Some schools frown on “tattling”. Wisely and with good intent, many schools take pains to differentiate between tattling and telling. Tattling, they reason, is reporting nitpicky things to adults, like minor squabbling, faces, minor name-calling, bragging, etc. Telling, on the other hand, is reporting serious problems like violence and other dangerous situations. It all makes sense on the surface. One problem is that victims of bullying tend to err on the side of avoiding because they don’t want to be “tattlers”. Who wants to be nicknamed “The Tattler”?

Another problem, as I have previously discussed, is that children do not want to stir up even more trouble for themselves. Children possess enough intuition to know that schools generally do not use their power enough to make a bully stop; they know that the bully will get a minor consequence, then be right back at the bullying. And this time, with more steam. Not only does the bully continue, but he/she has a justifiable reason to seek vengeance—“You got me in trouble! Now I’m going to make you pay!”

If schools want children to report bullying, then they will have to learn to respond with gusto. Until then, expect most children to hide their abuse from the adults who are entrusted to protect them and teach them life lessons.

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