Tattling Versus Telling
The difference can be keeping someone out of trouble rather than getting him into trouble.
Nobody likes a tattletale, but not everyone who tells on someone is tattling. It’s one thing when your child repeatedly tattles that his sibling is picking his nose, but it’s a completely different issue when he tells you that his sibling is playing with fire or that someone at school is trying to hurt him.
It’s up to you to help your child understand when it’s appropriate to report about someone else’s behavior and when she should try to handle the situation herself.
Why Young Kids Tattle
“Tattling is a typical behavior for toddlers and preschoolers,” says Lori Listug-Lunde, PhD, a licensed psychologist and psychology fellow at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE, “They are learning social skills and often don’t know how to handle a problem on their own. They often need help sorting out what is important to tell an adult versus what they should handle on their own.”
“Some researchers believe that tattling at a young age might be related to children’s emerging moral sense,” says Lisa Liner, MD, a pediatrician at Virtua West Jersey Hospital in Voorhees, NJ. “When children see someone violate a rule that they just learned, they want that rule enforced.”
“Sibling rivalry and the need for attention can be additional reasons that children tattle,” says Dr. Listug-Lunde.
Why Older Kids Tattle
“Tattling is less common in middle school and high school age children,” says Dr. Listug-Lunde. “By this age, kids often have a better sense of what is tattling (telling on someone to get them into trouble) versus reporting (telling about something to help someone keep out of trouble).
However, older children who have difficulty with social problem-solving might be more likely to tattle.”
“Tattling has some complex motivations because it appeals to some standard of behavior and results in punishment to the offending child,” says Daniel Hart, EdD, director of the Center for Children and Childhood Studies at Rutgers-Camden.
“To some extent, kids like to tattle because they want to get back at someone and get them in trouble with an adult,” says Dr. Hart. “This way they can hurt the other child at a low cost to them, instead of directly harming him. This is more common of older kids who need the forethought to think about the consequences of their tattling.”
“Sometimes kids tattle because someone is doing something verbally or physically to make them uncomfortable,” says Nathan Blum, MD, developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Telling on others can be a way kids protect themselves.”
When Little Kids Tattle
“You will not be able to prevent tattling altogether,” advises Dr. Listug-Lunde. “It is a typical behavior for youngsters and you should expect small amounts of tattling.” However, there are some tips you can follow to manage tattling.
“Since younger kids typically tattle about rules being broken, help them learn when it is appropriate to tell an adult about what has happened,” says Dr. Blum.
“If a child violates a minor rule that doesn’t affect anyone else, ignore the child who is tattling and do not act on the information.” If you yell or punish the other child, you will just reinforce the tattling behavior.
“However, if a clear rule is violated or a behavior adversely affects another child, you must enforce it,” adds Dr. Blum. “If you don’t have a rule for that situation, create one that you can enforce every time the rule is broken.
“If you repeatedly have to respond to the same child tattling on his sibling or another child, monitor the situation yourself. You shouldn’t have to rely on your five-year-old son to tell you what’s going on.”
“Consider these early tattles as opportunities to help teach your kids how to problem-solve and to figure out what situations they might be able to handle on their own, while reassuring them that you are there to help them out,” says Dr. Liner.
“Model appropriate telling behaviors,” says Dr. Listug-Lunde. “If you’re gossiping with friends, your child might interpret it as tattling, so be sure to model how you want your children to talk to their peers.”
“Since tattling is often a way for youngsters to gain attention, spending positive time with your child will decrease her use of tattling as a means of gaining attention,” adds Dr. Listug-Lunde. “When you have multiple children, find some individual time (even if very brief) to spend with each child daily.”
When Older Kids Tattle
“If your older children are repeatedly tattling, there is often some kind of problem that must be addressed,” says Dr. Blum. “When tattling appears to be a sign of distress, it should not be ignored. In this case, you must respond to your children. Ignoring their pleas for help could potentially make them feel isolated, ultimately causing others to just label them as a tattletales.”
“If your child is trying to help and is really concerned about someone, listen to his concerns and figure out what is the best thing for you or him to do,” says Dr. Listug-Lunde. “If it is something you think he can handle, help him come up with a solution. If you think you need to handle it, let him know you will help this person out. At times, it might work to bring the two kids (especially siblings) together and help them problem-solve the situation.”
“When your child is tattling with the purpose of getting someone else in trouble, talk to your child about how the conflict could be solved differently,” says Dr. Hart. “Help your child develop more constructive solutions. Teach her to resolve the conflict directly with the child instead of running to an adult.”
“Set up ways for your child to report on the positive behavior of others,” suggests Dr. Listug-Lunde. “For example, your child could earn points or praise for reporting times when his sibling helped him out or did something good. This might help to turn the tide of negativity.”
Bullying at School
If bullying is involved, kids should be encouraged to tell. “It is common for older children and teens to be teased at school,” says Dr. Blum. “However, if your child is being threatened or bullied, this is no longer a benign experience and you need to intervene.”
Dr. Blum suggests talking to your child’s teacher or the school counselor to ensure an adult is monitoring your child. This is especially important in high-risk places where there is little adult supervision, such as at recess or on the bus. In these cases, the recess teacher or bus driver might be the one who needs to participate in planning the intervention.
Regardless of how old your child is, remember that the next time you think he is tattling, take a minute to listen to what he has to say. He might be reporting something important that could have serious consequences for him or another child.
June Portnoy is a contributing writer to MetroKids.