Is Edward Snowden a tattletale? A mother's reply.

Edward Snowden, NSA whistle-blower, 'patriot,' or 'traitor'? How do you explain the Snowden debate to kids?

Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, speaks to NBC News anchor Brian Williams during an NBC Exclusive interview. This image is taken from a video provided by NBC News on Tuesday, May 27.

Parents who are under constant surveillance by their kids might want to carefully consider their words about former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whom some call “traitor” and others label a “patriot” after he leaked classified documents on government surveillance operations.

Regardless of your opinion of Mr. Snowden’s actions, kids might take away a garbled message dependent on their parents response.

“Little pitchers have big ears,” was a favorite phrase spoken often by my grandmother whenever she and my mother were discussing something “too grown-up” for me to hear.

It seems that no matter how careful a parent may be, there are often times when we are engaged in a phone conversation or chatting about the news with friends, and suddenly realize a child has hunkered down nearby quietly eavesdropping.

Last night, after watching an old “Star Trek” movie on TV with my teenage son Avery, we changed channels and were bombarded by a series of commercials promoting Snowden’s interview with NBC Nightly News interviewer Brian Williams.

Avery and I launched into one of our usual mother-son news dissections to discuss our views on how the media has approached this issue and whistleblowing in general.

The core of the discussion came down to the sometimes fine line between “tattletale” and “whistle-blower.”

It wasn’t until my college-age son Ian came into the room to join the talk, letting it fly with a very colorful word about “the media,” that I suddenly realized my son Quin, 10, (who had also watched the movie) was still sitting quietly in the corner playing his Game Boy – and all ears.

“I’m not a tattletale,” Quin blurted defensively when we all looked in his direction.

He missed Ian's expletive but keyed-in on the kid word “tattletale.”

While my immediate focus was the colorful word being spoken in front of the younger sons, this morning I began to wonder what, if anything, Quin had taken away from the Snowden chatter he’d heard.

Therefore, as I drove Quin to school today, I asked if he knew who Snowden was and found that despite being in the room with us, he had very little clue about why Snowden was in the news.

I explained that Snowden is a “whistle-blower” and gave an oversimplified version of his actions.

As we passed the crossing guard and approached the elementary school Quin said, “I get it. Snowden’s a crossing guard who blew his whistle too loud and now everybody’s mad at him.”

I tried again, this time explaining the government surveillance issue in a bit more detail.

“Wait, what? They can listen in on my cell phone and read my emails,” Quin said in a scandalized tone.

“You don’t have a cell phone or email,” I pointed out to him.

Quin dismissed this little reality check saying, “That’s totally not the point. The point is he told on them and now people hate him.”

My son jumped out of the car, slammed the door and shouted over his shoulder, “Love you. Bye!”

I don’t even know if that went well from a parenting standpoint.

However, I think I would much rather have my son walk away thinking Snowden dealt with an ethical and moral whistle blowing dilemma than think his crossing guard could somehow end up in the slammer for doing his job.

What I learned from this exchange is that in order to get our kids to have a clear understanding of some major news issues that won’t go away, like Snowden, we need to approach the news with intention, knowing that kids often misunderstand what they are told, let alone what they overhear.

When Quin gets home from school, I intend to tell him about a different government whistleblower closer to our Norfolk, Va. home, Dawn Westmoreland, who turned in her bosses at the Veteran’s Administration in Asheville, N.C. back in 2012.

Ms. Westmoreland, a disabled veteran herself, alerted the federal government to actions of her managers at the VA where she worked, alleging favoritism for hiring and training that advanced only some people, according to a press release distributed last week.

“I would want kids looking at this (whistle-blowing) through the Edward Snowden situation to know that whistle-blowing is much bigger than standing up for ourselves,” wrote Westmoreland in an email to me today. “It's about standing up for our co-workers and the rest of world that is suffering too.”

She added, “I believe that people who are conscientious and want to make a positive difference will step into their personal power and be a whistle blower regardless of if they are scared or uncomfortable.”

Because Westmoreland says she was severely bullied for being a “whistle-blower,” she has taken the money from the court settlement related to her case (the amount of which she is not allowed legally to disclose) and is using every penny to create The Foundation Of Respect, which empowers women in the work place to report wrongdoing without threat of retribution from their peers.

I like this whistle-blower example as a counterpoint to the ongoing Snowden news because Westmoreland acted on a Latin phrase I once learned in order to impress a teacher, "Primum non nocere" that means "First, do no harm." 

She found a way to turn a bad situation into something good for others, whether they are government employees like she was, or someone working at a convenience store and being bullied by a coworker or employer.

As parents, we have the opportunity right now to help our children understand that while the adult world of “tattletaling” can be complex and often confusing, for a child it is always correct to seek help when someone hurts them or they see someone doing harm to another.

Kids overhear news, which is nearly impossible to avoid in today’s world. We need to be ready to respond to their questions, instead of letting them build a story on their own from our reactions.

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