For parents in my age group, the concept of tattling might bring one particular episode featuring the first family of ’70s television to mind. You remember on “The Brady Bunch” when Cindy created drama within the family by tattling? Whether you recall this brilliant show (aptly titled “The Tattle Tale”) or not, the moral was simple—no one likes a tattle tale.
So when our young kids start doing it, how should we react? After all, we were trained to believe that tattling is undesirable and for a parent it can actually be quite annoying. Breezy Mama went to renowned author and child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD (NJ lic. #4254) for her expertise and best practices for parents to tackle this tough behavior among preschoolers. –Robyn Lass, Breezy Mama correspondent
Why do kids tattle?
There are a lot of reasons why children might tattle. Tattling may be an attempt to
1) Set the world to rights.
2) Solve a problem.
3) Get the other child in trouble.
At what age does it usually start?
Four- and five-year-olds are just learning about rules and trying to figure out how the world works. They find it intolerable when another child breaks the rules—especially if they’ve gotten in trouble for the same offense—because that’s not the way things should be! They believe that they’re supposed to tell adults about misbehavior so that the adult can restore order.
In the early elementary years, children are very concerned about “fairness.” Their tattling is often an attempt to bring down swift and painful justice on a wrongdoer.
As children head towards the later elementary years, they being to understand that their peers look down on “tattle tales.” So, in deciding whether or not to tattle, they weigh the possible risk of hurting their reputation with peers versus the possible benefit of recruiting an adult to their side as a means of hurting or getting revenge on a rival.
By middle school, children are more likely to “tattle” to a peer than an adult. Girls, in particular, may use gossip as a way to get back at someone who has “wronged” them.
Is it something that all kids go through?
Almost all children try tattling, but they vary in how long they stick with this strategy. Kids who are perfectionists, who are very concerned about the rules, who want to feel superior, who often feel angry or resentful towards peers or siblings, who have trouble picking up on peer group expectations about NOT tattling, or who haven’t learned better ways to solve problems are most likely to persist with tattling.
How should parents handle it?
How we should respond depends on the reason behind the tattling and the extent to which it’s an on-going problem.
First, start by empathizing. “You’re feeling frustrated that…” “It bothers you that…” “You want her to…” Empathy from an adult can bolster children’s self-control, so they’re less likely to turn around and try to solve the problem in an aggressive way. You can also ask, “Do you need a hug?” but don’t leap in to solve a minor problem that your child could handle alone.
Next, encourage problem solving. With older children, you can ask, “What can you do to…?” or “How have you tried to…? What else could you do?” With younger children, you can present two options. For example, you could say, “You have a choice, you can ask him nicely to stop, or you can go play in another room.”
For on-going problems with tattling, a quick, boring reminder might help. You could silently point to a “No tattling” sign. You could say calmly, “It’s not your job to correct his behavior.” If your child objects, “But he’s doing something bad and you’re not doing anything about it!” Just respond matter-of-factly, “I’m the mom. I decide when he needs correcting.” If your child says, “But it’s not fair!” don’t defend yourself. There’s no benefit to debating your parenting philosophy with a child! Just acknowledge, “I can see that you’re frustrated, but this is my decision.”
If there’s a particular situation that comes up a lot, you may want to choose a calm moment to help your child practice ways to solve the problem without tattling. For example, if a sibling is making annoying noises, your child could try a) ignoring it, b) asking the sibling nicely to stop, or c) moving away.
With older children who have a habit of tattling, try not to take sides. You could say, “I’m sure you two can find a way to work this out peacefully.” If they persist in badgering you, you could say, “My solution will be to separate both of you (or put the toy away). Now is your chance to work it out peacefully yourselves.” Refuse to be drawn into “He did this! She did that!” debates. Ask, “Can you two play together peacefully or do you both need to be separated?”
How can we teach our child the difference between good tattling (Johnny just ran into the parking lot!) and bad tattling (Johnny just threw sand!)?
It’s helpful to use two different words for these. Explain to your child that “tattling” means you’re trying to get someone in trouble. “Telling” means you’re trying to solve a problem that you can’t solve on your own.
With school-aged children, tell them that before they come to an adult to talk about someone else’s behavior, they should ask themselves:
- Will someone get hurt?
- Will something get broken?
- Does someone need help?
- Have I tried to handle the problem myself?
If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” then they should NOT tattle.
If tattling is frequent in your home, you may want to post these questions on your refrigerator. You can also ask these questions aloud when your child comes to you with a complaint about a sibling.
Is it a phase most kids grow out of or do parents need to encourage them out of the habit?
At school, most children will eventually cut down on tattling to teachers because they don’t want their peers to call them tattle tales. At home, there is no such incentive. Kids don’t care if their siblings are mad at them for tattling. In fact, making a sibling mad is often the goal of tattling!
If tattling works—to annoy a sibling or to muster an adult ally—it will continue indefinitely at home.
What could happen if parents don’t discourage their kids from tattling?
Tattling can become an unattractive habit that is off-putting to both other children and adults. It’s a bit like bragging, because it implies “I’m better than that other kid!” While it might yield some short-term satisfaction from getting the other kid in trouble, it’s not kind, and it certainly doesn’t make a child come across as likeable.
For children in late elementary and middle school, who are more likely to gossip than tattle, it’s important to have a frank discussion about how hurting someone’s reputation can be worse than hurting someone physically. (Physical injuries usually heal faster.)
Explain to your child that telling other kids about a problem can very quickly make the problem much bigger, as other kids take sides and resentments build. It’s usually better to work things out directly with the other kid. Involving an audience raises the stakes and makes the problem bigger.
Also, explain that gossiping can come back to bite your child. While other kids will listen with interest if your child talks about people behind their backs, they will trust your child less, because they will wonder what your child says about them when they’re not around. No one has ever thought, “Ooh! I want to be friends with Morgan because she says really mean things!” And odds are, if your child says something mean, it will be repeated, and it will get back to the other child, who will say something even meaner about your child.
Is there any benefit to allowing some tattling?
You don’t have to “allow” some tattling deliberately, because it will just happen. Inevitably, some tattling will be successful. There will be times when one sibling says something like, “Jason is unrolling the toilet paper!” and you’ll respond “Jason, stop that!” The tattling child will feel smug, amused, and self-righteous because the sibling got scolded. As long as this isn’t a frequent pattern, I don’t think it’s a big deal.
Use your feelings as a guide to whether tattling is a problem in your home. If you frequently feel irritated by your child’s tattling, it’s probably happening too often, and you might need to take steps to discourage it.
About Dr. Kennedy-Moore: Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, (NJ lic. #4254) is a psychologist with a private practice in Princeton, NJ, where she works with children, adults, and families. She’s the co-author of two books for parents: Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential (Jossey-Bass, coming Jan. 2011) and The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends (Little, Brown). She’s also the author of an award-winning children’s book, What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister (Parenting Press). Dr. Kennedy-Moore frequently speaks at schools, conferences, and community group events. Her website is www.eileenkennedymoore.com.
To order The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends from Amazon ($10.19), click here.
To order What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister from Amazon ($10.17), click here.