How to Teach Kids the Difference Between Tattling and Telling

Teach kids not to tattle
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Teaching kids not to tattle can be a bit of a complex issue. While you don’t want your child to squeal every time her brother sticks his tongue at her, it’s important that she does come forward if her brother is sticking a fork in the light socket. For that reason, it’s essential to teach kids to distinguish between tattling and telling.

Why Kids Tattle

Tattling is a normal childhood behavior that is most common during the preschool and elementary school years.

At this age, they tend to be very literal. They’re proud of their own ability to follow the rules and they grow concerned when they see someone else isn’t. They believe that adults should be alerted immediately, no matter how minor the infraction may be.

Sometimes tattletales squeal in an attempt to make themselves look better. They may want a teacher or parent to take notice “how naughty” other children are.

Revenge is also another motive behind tattling.  A tattletale may get back at a friend who refused to play with her or to punish her brother for hurting her feelings. She may hope that by telling, the perpetrator will get into “big trouble.”

Tattling Vs. Telling

Although the overall message should be that tattling isn’t a good idea, kids need to know that there are times when it’s essential to tell an adult what is going on. Hold ongoing conversations with your child about the difference between tattling and telling.

Here are times when kids need to know they should tell:

  • Illegal activity – Kids need to know they should report activity that could result in police involvement. Tell your child to talk to an adult if she sees another child steal from a store or break a neighbor’s window, for example.
  • Dangerous activity – Talk about the importance of seeking help when an activity could potentially be dangerous. Explain to your child that it’s important to tell an adult if she becomes aware of another child playing with a lighter or planning to meet a stranger from the internet.
  • Activity that hurts people – Kids need to know they can seek help for themselves or someone else if another child is doing something that hurts others. Bullying, physical aggression, or inappropriate sexualized behavior, for example, should be reported.

Reinforce the Message Often

Initially, it could be a good idea to tell your child to err on the side of caution. If she’s not sure if what she’s witnessed constitutes tattling or telling, use the opportunity to teach her.

If she’s clearly tattling, ask her a few questions, like, “When your brother picks his nose, does that hurt anyone? Is it dangerous? Could it get him in trouble with the police?” After asking those questions and listening to her answers, ask her if she thinks what she told you constitutes tattling or telling. Help her draw her own conclusion.

After she practices answering those questions enough time, she’ll learn how to ask herself those questions before she runs to an adult. The goal is for her to eventually be able to recognize when it’s appropriate to tell an adult.

Re-Visit the Idea Over Time

As your child grows, it’s important to continue to have an ongoing conversation about when it’s appropriate to tell. The issue can become more complicated over time.

During the middle school years, issues like gossiping, cyberbullying, and cheating are likely to arise. Also, tweens may struggle to deal with issues where a peer says, “Promise you won’t tell anyone?” only to reveal a serious issue. It’s important for kids to understand that revealing safety concerns may damage friendships, but it’s still imperative for them to come forward.

Deciding when to tell an adult and when to remain silent is an issue that lasts well into high school. Teens often struggle about how to respond when they discover a peer’s risky choices, like drug or alcohol use, self-harm, or sexual activity. It’s important to have ongoing conversations about when a friend’s behavior becomes serious enough that an adult should be notified.

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