Tattling may be inevitable
Seven-year-old Taya Kendall isn’t ashamed to admit that she sometimes tattles on her little sister, Eden, who is five. “I have to tell on her because she’s bugging me so much, or doing something I don’t like, or asking me to help her over and over. Basically, whenever you have a younger sibling, you have to tell on them all the time,” she explains.
Taya’s probably right — a certain amount of tattling may be inevitable. Kids are going to have complaints about their siblings or friends, and who else can they turn to but the adults in their lives? All the same, the adults know that tattling isn’t going to increase a child’s popularity with his peers, and the constant reports of so-and-so did… can quickly drive a parent crazy. So how do you rein in the tattling behaviour while making it clear that you do want to hear about the important stuff?
Nicola Aquino, mother of two boys (now 11 and 13) says she adopted a strategy from parenting expert and author Barbara Coloroso. “Starting when they were quite young, I explained the difference between telling, which is done to get someone out of trouble, and tattling, which is done to get someone into trouble.”
By age six, they seemed to — most of the time — understand the difference. And Aquino soon encountered a couple of incidents she could use to clarify things for the boys: The family had a large apple tree in the backyard. When Anthony came in to tell his mother that Patrick was climbing the tree, she asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” Anthony’s response: “Because he’s not supposed to.” Aquino explained that in that case, he was tattling and just trying to get Patrick in trouble.
On another occasion, though, Anthony came running into the kitchen to let Aquino know that Patrick had fallen out of the tree. “I was out there in a flash,” Aquino says. “Patrick had a wicked gash, but nothing serious. However, I used that as an example — that was telling because he was getting me to help Patrick, not trying to get him in trouble.”
Get adults to solve problems for them
The biggest problem with tattling, Aquino feels, is that children use it to get the adults to solve problems for them — problems they need to learn to work out for themselves. “Anthony tends to be a little policeman who believes the rules are the rules,” Aquino explains. He would report to his mother about minor disagreements, and she had to keep reminding him that these were problems he needed to work out with his brother or his friends.
This can be tricky, though. You don’t want your child to feel she can’t come to you with serious problems, such as bullying or mistreatment by another person. And it’s important to recognize that children this age are still learning the social skills of working through disagreements and may sometimes need adult help.
Taya’s mother, Rebecca Kendall, says: “I do like my daughters to find their own solutions or compromises, but sometimes they can’t. They are two very strong personalities and sometimes they just get too frustrated and upset with each other.” If she sees the emotions rising, she’ll step in when one child comes to her and tattles, even though nobody is getting physically hurt. Hurt feelings count too.
Tattling can be payback
Kendall has noticed that the tattling happens most often when one child thinks the situation is unfair. Perhaps child A has gotten in trouble for doing something; now child B is doing the same thing, but Dad’s in another room, so B is getting away with it.
Or the tattling can be payback. As Taya explains: “Sometimes Eden wants me to do something, and I tell her to wait a minute because I’m doing something else, and then she goes and tells my parents that I won’t help her. Then they tell me I have to help her. That’s not fair. So the next time she starts bugging me, I’ll go tell on her.”
Kendall’s response: “I don’t like when they don’t get along. I remind them that they are sisters and they need to watch each other’s backs.”
As kids develop more skills in problem solving, the tattling tends to decrease. And by keeping the door open for telling, you make it easier for them to come to you when there are real problems.
Telling or tattling?
Try this quiz on your six-year-old and see if she knows the difference between tattling and telling:
• Your brother is playing a board game with you and he cheats so that he wins. You go find your father to complain.
• Your friend at school took home one of the classroom books that the teacher said should stay at school, and brought it back the next day. You let the teacher know what your friend did.
• Your little brother climbed up on a chair and got a sharp knife out of a drawer in the kitchen. You run to let your mother know.
• A boy you know at school accidentally kicked his ball into the creek behind the schoolyard. He’s going to climb over the fence and try to get it out of the water, which is quite deep. You go to inform the teacher.
*The first two are tattling; the last two are telling.
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.