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How to Raise Tattletales

I am in the kitchen, cutting an onion, when Violet appears.

“Umm, dad?” she says.

“Yeah, what’s up, kiddo?”

She looks at me intensely, and I know that things are afoot. She has been upstairs with her little brother, out of my sight for awhile, and that usually ends up one of three ways:

a. they play together in impressive harmony,

b. they fight like wild animals or

c. they attempt to destroy a part of our home

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“Well, we have a problem.”

Whenever a 5-year-old voice tells me we have a problem, I either gear myself up for a long-winded explanation of something innocuous and light … OR … I prepare myself to go in, for complete and total reconnaissance.

“Oh,” I mutter. “What is it?”

“Well, Henry is stuck in the sink.”

I try and imagine all of the sinks in the house, canceling out the kitchen one because I am standing right here beside it and there is no 3-year-old hooligan anywhere near it. I’m thinking bathroom. I’m thinking water. I’m thinking epic Old Testament-style floods. And to be blunt about it all, I’m thinking there could even be toddler poop involved because these days toddler poop shows up, uninvited, in a staggering variety of scenarios.

It’s a recon mission, for sure. That much I know.

I look at Violet and move past her immediately. I’m going in.

Upstairs, my son is in the bathroom sink, the hot water tap wide open, but luckily with the cold one pumping as well. He is crying, of course, not so much because he is injured or even scared or whatever, but more because when small kids end up peeling back the layers of proper behavior in order to experiment with insanity and horrific action, they often peel back all of the layers, until they end up freaking themselves out, along with the rest of the world.

Later on, after I have "rescued" my boy and sopped up the mess, I end up sipping a glass of Chianti and thinking about my daughter, about how she came down, just like her mom and I have asked her to do, to tell me that something uncool was going down.

I’m proud of her. I am. And yet, I start to think about the long haul she has in front of her, the years and years of life she will be living, even long after I am gone, and I get to wondering, at what point do kids cross the line from telling adults stuff that they ought to know into tattletale country.

How much should I pay attention to and follow through, and how much should I just, well, ignore?

See, in this case, Violet was awesome and I know that. She probably prevented a massive deluge coming down through our ceiling (Henry, her brother, did not seem intent on trying to drag himself out of the sink or turning off the spigot). And for that, I am proud that she followed through on the lessons she’d been taught.

There are a lot of times, however, when either she or her brother comes running at me from some other room, tears flowing, words garbled, just to tell me that the other kid stole a Goldfish cracker out of their hand or something trivial like that.

And I wonder, at times, whether I even need to hear all of that jazz, you know? As parents, we don’t want our young children policing themselves all the time since, let’s face it, a lot of their cop work just comes down in the form of outright brutality. They don’t have all the tools, or even all the desire, to settle things amicably or with reason, a lot of the time. And so we want them to bring us in as soon as possible to help calm the easily frayed nerves and tempers.

But how often is too often? How much should I pay attention to and follow through, and how much should I just, well, ignore? I don’t want to be involved in every playroom squabble, to be honest. I just don’t. Plus, I don’t remember everything about my childhood since it happened like 200 years ago, but I do recall, in vivid detail, how tattletales swiftly become exiled and scorned in any group of neighborhood kids or school friends.

That can lead to a bad reputation. You don’t want to be known as a rat, at least not in mafia circles, or youth cliques.

So, I’ve backed off a bit, as hard as it is. Instead of running to the rescue, saying the same old things over and over and over again, instead of flipping on the broken record of dadness that becomes easy to abuse and powerless if wielded too often, every single time there is a little chaos or trouble, these days I just try my best to take a deep drag of ether and kneel down to the kid beside me, the one looking for answers.

“You know what, my friend?” I whisper, after I try and calm them down a little.

“What?” they ask.

“I gotta tell you a secret.”

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I lean into a tiny ear then, the moment charged now, hanging out there above us in the kitchen sky.

And I make up something so random and ridiculous, something so off the cuff and pointless and senseless, that it dazzles weeping eyes into staring up at me, bewildered that I could be so … so … so random.

And then, I offer them a Hershey Kiss or maybe even a popsicle.

Just because what else can you do, you know?

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