Noah faced his earliest ethical dilemma in the first grade. Most of the time he felt quite happy at school; he liked his teacher and had a lot of friends from different groups. But there was one thing he really didn’t like at all. Every day he saw the same boy in his class tease and bully the same girl during recess. The boy never bothered Noah, but was very careful to tease the girl where teachers couldn’t see it happen, or during times adult supervision was scarce. It was the same thing every day: the boy would approach the girl, call her names, and follow her until she was just on the verge of crying. Then he would laugh and walk away saying, “ I was just kidding!”
What was hardest for Noah to deal with was the fact that no one ever said anything to the teachers. Sometimes he or someone else would try to stick up for the girl, but that only stopped the teasing that day. It would just begin again the next. And every day Noah struggled with the same thorny question of whether or not to tell on the bully.
Noah feared that if he went to a teacher it would get out that he was the one who tattled, and he didn’t want the boy to start bullying him instead. He also knew how most of the kids in his class felt about tattletales. There was a very strong code of silence around teasing and bullying. Yet, he hated to watch this poor girl brace herself every day when the recess bell rang.
So, the dilemma in Noah’s first grade mind was, should he tattle, or should he ignore it?
Notes for the Facilitator
The case study above is based on a discussion I had recently in my high school classroom where students were reaching for their earliest memories around making ethical choices. Noah’s example is especially good because he recognized that it was the first time he learned a life lesson involving intention.
Here, Noah learned that when the intention is to perpetuate a problem or make it worse, telling on someone (or “tattling”) is neither a kind nor a moral act. However, when the intention is to help solve or stop the problem, then it is the right time to tell on someone.
This lesson felt like a lightening bolt of clarity for Noah in what was (and still is) a very confusing world of right and wrong.
I like talking about this case because every person in the room can remember playing some role in a similar situation. Also, it is very powerful to have volunteers take us back to some of those experiences and walk through them again.
This case is also great fodder for a larger discussion on how the intention factor plays out at different periods in our lives. Personally, I often have to work hard to argue that the intention factor doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change at all. With a little nudge, my students also engage in some powerful discussion around how gender roles inform cases like Noah’s. Do boys have a different code than girls about when it’s appropriate to tell on someone? Why or why not? Do boys and girls have different motivators or methods for telling on someone?
Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)
- What would you do if you were in Noah’s shoes? Have you ever been there? Do you regret or are you proud of your decision now?
- Have you ever been told on by someone because you were doing something wrong? What was your immediate reaction? What do you remember about how you felt about your behavior at the time?
- How does the idea of “intention” play into whether or not to tell on someone?
- Have you ever told on someone just to watch them get into trouble, or to add to the drama? What did it feel like? How is that choice different from telling on someone in order to put a halt to something you think is bad?
- Do you think the code of silence around telling on someone changes as one gets older? Is it the same in first grade as it is in middle school? High school?