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Tattle Tongues

Kids Tattle to Parents
Is reporting rule breakers a good idea, or a sign of a bigger problem?


Many of the rules we impose on our children exist for a purpose, but every now and then there’s an infraction so small we feel OK looking the other way.

Unless a tattletale steps in, that is. There’s no rule violation too small to present to parents and authority figures. Even if we’re content to let the behavior slide, the tattler is determined to make sure the wrong is righted. Acknowledging the tattletale gives the little justice fighter a power rush that all but guarantees they will tattle again, but ignoring them can send a message that rules aren’t important.

So what’s a parent to do?

Why kids tattle

Tattling is most prevalent in toddlers, preschoolers, and grade schoolers. Some experts believe it stems from a child’s developing sense of morality. The child knows that there are rules in place and expects each and every child to obey those rules without question. The child sees noncompliance, no matter how trivial that noncompliance is, as legitimate grounds for adult intervention. Bringing others to justice makes them feel smart and important, and can give them the attention they feel they need.

Older kids aren’t immune to tattling. Although tattling typically tapers off by middle school, some children who have difficulty socializing continue to tattle into the high school. These children often have weak problem-solving skills, need a defense mechanism to prevent discomfort, or use tattling as retribution to avoid getting in trouble themselves. They rationalize that tattling to avoid awkward situations is preferable to dealing with the situation itself.

The good and bad of tattling

The upside to tattling is that tattling is a sign the child is developing and using thinking skills. The ability to look at another child’s behavior, analyze it in regards to rules and expectations, and then report the findings to an adult is actually pretty advanced for toddlers. But because tattling is always a negative report of another’s behavior, that upper level thinking can get annoying quickly.

Of course, there are times that a child should seek out adult help and intervention, such as when a sibling or friend is doing something harmful or dangerous. In these instances, kids should report the behavior immediately and adults should react quickly.

Tattling versus telling

Young children, or older children with poor social skills, often don’t realize the difference between tattling and telling. Tattling is done to get someone else in trouble, while telling is done to keep someone safe. Informing a parent that a sibling is being annoying is tattling, but informing a parent that a sibling has matches in their bedroom is telling. Help distinguish between the two by asking the child whether they are tattling or telling. Telling should always be encouraged; tattling should not.

Responding to every tattle reinforces the tattling behavior, so it’s important for adults to decide which tattles to respond to and which to ignore. Small rule infractions, behavior that doesn’t adversely affect others, or petty observations (he’s picking his nose!) can be ignored. If a major rule is broken, address the perpetrator, but also talk to the tattler to help them see if there was a way the situation could have been addressed without tattling. Encourage the child to look for ways to solve the problem on their own before seeking an adult’s help. Improving problem-solving skills often decreases tattling behavior.

Tattletales are experts at finding the negative in every situation. Sometimes reframing their powers of observation go a long way in curbing tattling. If a child reports a negative behavior, ask the child to use their powers of observation to find three positive behaviors. If a tattler has to give three good observations for every bad one, they will eventually start noticing the good in others or decide that it’s too much work to try to get others in trouble. Win-win either way!

Ongoing tattling

Constant tattling can be a sign of a larger problem. Most tattletales are indiscriminate in their tattling: their tattling encompasses each and every rule breaker they see. However, repeated tattling that focuses on one particular child may indicate that a true issue exists between the tattler and the reported child. Ongoing tattling concerning one particular individual may mean that the tattler feels victimized by that individual. Conversely, the tattler may be trying to get the child in trouble to feel a sense of power over that individual. Regardless, parents and responsible adults should keep an eye on any situation to try to figure out the root cause.

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