Why Kids Tattle and What You Can Do About It

How to help your child stop this annoying habit and learn telling vs. tattling

child tattling - girl whispering in her mom's ear
When kids tattle, teach them to sort helpful actions from hurtful behavior. iStockphoto

Tattling is an annoying but fairly common behavior in school-age kids. Kids may tattle on classmates at school or on siblings or friends at home. They may even tell on a parent or another grownup.

The best way to discourage tattling in your child is to first understand why she is acting like an informant before you steer her away from this behavior. If she’s having trouble with a sibling who won’t share, for instance, you can teach her how to find other ways to solve conflicts.

If she’s telling on others to get attention, you can help her understand how she might hurt people by tattling and steer her toward more constructive behavior.

That said, kids should be taught to always speak up when someone is being hurt or is in danger. Since it’s so important that kids learn how to tell grownups about harmful behavior such as physical or emotional bullying, parents also need to know how to teach kids to distinguish between telling and tattling.

What is Tattling?

Tattling is the act of reporting on someone’s rule-breaking behavior or actions, usually to get that person in trouble. But if a child tells a parent or other grownup about something that is hurting someone or could cause harm, that is not tattling -- that is helping someone or preventing someone from getting hurt.

Why Kids Tattle

Kids can resort to tattling for different reasons. For one thing, school-age kids are learning more about rules and what it means to break them.
They are developing morals, figuring out the difference between right and wrong, and putting emphasis on being fair. So when they see someone doing something they are not supposed to, they may feel a compulsion to tell on them.

Children may also tattle because they want to get on a parent or teacher’s good side and because they think there may be a reward for their not doing that bad thing their sibling or classmate is doing.

They may also be motivated by jealousy, such as between fighting siblings. In those situations, a child may tattle to gain an edge over her brother or sister.

Young children also lack the tools to negotiate and manage conflicts. A child who feels like her brother is not being fair to her will need your help not to intervene every time they have a problem but to show them how to get along as loving siblings.

How to Discourage Tattling

You can take the allure out of tattling by gently encouraging your child to think about the consequences of his actions. Ask your child, how would you feel if you did something, perhaps by accident or without meaning to break the rules, and someone told on him? Would he feel upset? Sad? Embarrassed? Betrayed? Would he feel good or would he feel bad?

By suggesting to your child that he think about the feelings of the person he tattled on, you are not only teaching your child why tattling can be hurtful but also nurturing empathy in your child.

Another effective way to discourage tattling is by giving your child some tools to help him learn how to solve some problems on his own.

If he’s having a problem with a classmate who won’t share, tell him to try to negotiate and take turns when possible. If he’s fighting with a brother or sister who teases him or hurts his feelings, teach him to ask politely but firmly for respect and then make sure you guide the siblings toward a positive sibling relationship. Instead of stepping in each time your child tattles, guide your child toward figuring out how to work through conflicts and help make the situation better for your child on a more general level.

Be sure to avoid rewarding your child for tattling on someone by repeatedly punishing the person -- sibling, playmate, or someone else -- for doing something wrong. This will only encourage your child to keep tattling.

Finally, try to see the positive side of your child’s urge to be the monitor of rule-breakers. Knowing what others should and should not be doing means that your child is learning the rules himself, and tattling is his way of saying that he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.

How to Teach Kids When They Should Tell -- Tattling vs. Telling

There are times, however, when children should absolutely tell an adult about something that’s going on -- when telling will help someone (including their own selves) who’s being hurt, will help someone who is in danger, or will stop someone who is deliberately being destructive or hurtful. (Bullying is an especially important example of something kids should report, whether it’s happening to them personally or they’ve witnessed someone else being bullied. Talk to your child about what bullying is and take steps to stop it as soon as possible.)

Teach your child to think before telling and consider factors like whether the person she’s about to tell on is doing something to harm someone else or themselves or did something wrong by accident or on purpose. Ask your child to ask herself whether she tried to fix the problem on her own before she came to you for help. And most of all, ask her to ask herself whether telling will help someone be safe or will only get someone -- the person she’s tattling on -- into trouble.

And be patient. It can often be very difficult for young children to distinguish between a situation that’s dangerous and one that isn’t. When she comes to you, give her your attention and be positive understanding. Allow room for mistakes and keep reinforcing the message that it’s important to be a kind and considerate person, and to always try to help, rather than cause hurt.

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