A child's social behavior is easy to track in the classroom or on a play date. But what about those moments where children are free to interact with one another without direct adult supervision? Whether it's on the playground, in the hallway, or when adult backs are turned, a child's peer relationships can tell a lot about what is, and isn't, on their minds.
According to Mary Pat McCartney, a veteran elementary school guidance counselor, first grade social interactions are characterized by chasing-games (often girls vs. boys), role-playing games (such as “house”), and a whole lot of tattling.
Parents with multiple children are familiar with the pattern: “Daddy, Daddy, Katie took a cookie/pulled Fluffy's tail/said a bad word/didn't finish her timeout!” But what parents may not be aware of is the root of this behavior. “Kids like to think that others are following the same rules they are,” says McCartney, “If they notice someone deviating from the rules, they report it.”
Don't worry that you have a snitch on your hands. This urge does not necessarily arise out of a desire to get others in trouble, according to McCartney. “Sometimes kids are tattling out of a need to have order in their environment.” In the complicated world of six and seven year-olds, rules and routines shape their sense of security.
Just like in their baby years, when mealtime, bath time, and bedtime routines gave them a sense of comfort, first graders depend on a structured environment to create a comfort zone. Behavioral guidelines modeled by adults give structure to their sense of right and wrong, and, by reporting the behavior of other children, they are enforcing those guidelines. The bottom line? “Kids want security, they want to know that everything is okay,” says McCartney.
The tattling impulse is normal for first graders: as they transition from kindergarten to elementary school, they are still getting comfortable with their new environment. If a child tattles chronically, however, there may be other elements in their life that are causing anxiety. These might be anything from stress at school to changes at home, such as a divorce or a new baby. However, your little tattletale is unlikely to grow into a full-fledged stool-pigeon: with a little reassurance and a comforting dose of routine, she'll be too busy making friends to bother with who stole the cookie from the cookie jar.