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Why Kids Tattle and What To Do About It By: Elaine M. Gibson

When we bring an adult perspective to this process of tattling, or telling on someone, we fail to understand what is going on for the tattler. As adults, we aren't sure what to do about tattling and we convey our ambiguity to our children.   On one hand, we USE the information the child gives us to correct another child's behavior or prevent damage to people and property.  But on the other hand, we tell the tattler that tattling is wrong. 'Don't be a tattletale.'
Children can't cope with such double messages.

In the early years, children are not 'ratting' on someone when they turn into full-time informers. Young children, 2 and 3 years of age, are beginning to understand that some actions are acceptable and some or not. This is the first acceptance of right and wrong.   When a young child (under the age of seven) tells a parent that someone else did an unacceptable thing, the child is really coming to the adult for attention. The child is saying, 'I know it is wrong and I didn't do it, (even though I wanted to).' The child needs the adult to recognize this fact. Most adults either say, 'Don't be a tattletale' or they jump all over the offender. There is a better course of action.   SAY: 'I'm glad you are not doing that. You know better, don't you.'

When a young child comes with a 'someone is doing something' story, we can simply respond, 'I'm glad you are not doing that. You know better, don't you.' Adults are always surprised at how effective this is. Children who do this type of telling often smile and walk away content that the adults in charge know how well-behaved they are.

Look Before You Leap
If the 'someone who is doing something' warrants action, the adult needs to observe long enough to know what is actually going on before intervening. Relying on the word of one child against another child leads to nothing but trouble.  Adults can stop a problem without blaming or accusing a child. If a child repeatedly comes to adults with one tattle after the next, the child wants attention. If the child is noticed only when tattling, the tattling will increase.

Ignoring can Help  
Parents or teachers can decrease the amount of tattling a child is doing by ignoring the tattling. When the tattler approaches, it is easy to start a conversation with the child on any other subject before the tattling begins. Special efforts should be made to see that the child gets attention at other times for appropriate behaviors. Besides attention, children often NEED adult help.

When Tattling is the Easy Way Out

As a child, it is often easier to have an adult solve your social problems than to work them out yourself. If a child constantly comes to adults to solve problems with other children, the other children will ostracize the child as a 'tattletale.' When children bring adults their complaints about what other children are doing to them, careful consideration is required and questions should be avoided.

Questions to Avoid

The worst questions are: 

'What happened?'   We can only get one side of it, or at best, each child's slanted perspective.

'Who started it?'  Every parent knows that 'Not Me' is responsible for everything.

Listen to Feelings, Not Information
When an upset child brings bad news, an effective response is to simply pay attention to the child's feelings and let the child know you understand what he or she is feeling. Children need understanding but not pity. Too much comfort and the child will resist solving his or her own problems.

Instead of interfering in a child's social problems, we need to convey to the child, 'I know you will work this out. You are capable of solving your own problems even when it is difficult.' IF some help is required, we can stimulate the child to think with 'What else could you do?', or 'What do you think should be done?' responsibility should stay where it belongs, with the child.

We should never say, 'Don't be a tattletale' to control a child's tattling.
There are times when children come to adults because they require help. When a child feels threatened, that child needs adult help, even though it may sound like tattling. When a child is in danger, tattling is never wrong. 'Tattling' has probably saved the life of more than one child. Children should never be afraid to ask an adult for help because they have been told, 'It is wrong to tattle.'

Avoid the Label
We need to stop labeling children as 'tattletales' and pay attention to what they are really communicating. Tattling is a complex behavior. We need to use our adult judgment to respond appropriately in each unique situation. Our children will all be safer, emotionally and physically, and they will develop the maturity that puts an end to the 'tattling stage.'


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