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How to Talk to Your Kids about Tattling (and When It's OK to Tell)

Posted by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

For a long time it felt like I was constantly telling my kids, “Stop tattling!”  Whether it was reporting on who was hitting a sibling, who ate chocolate chips without asking, or who was coloring when they should be doing homework, the tattling in my house had gotten out of hand. In fact, it got to the point where I would turn a deaf ear any time someone ran up to me and started ratting out their brother or sister. Ignoring any and all telling came back to haunt me one day, though, when my daughter ran inside for what I thought was another tattle session. I held up my hand and stated, “I don’t want to hear it!  I’m tired of you tattling on your brother!”  Imagine my horror when she proceeded to tell me through tears that her brother had fallen off the deck and cut his knee wide open. That’s when I realized our family had to come up with some way of differentiating between tattling and reporting.

As parents, I think it’s easy to spend countless hours reminding our children not to tattle, and yet we sometimes forget there are situations in which kids need to be taught that it’s okay to tell. It’s important for your child to be able to recognize when a situation is serious enough where adult intervention is necessary.  Helping your child to identify when to tell is imperative not only for their safety, but for the safety of those around them.

One way to help your child know when they should report a situation is to review with them the difference between tattling and reporting. Tattling refers to a child telling an adult about the actions of another with the sole intention of getting that person in trouble. Reporting refers to telling an adult about the actions of another with the intention of getting help for someone who is in a potentially dangerous or harmful situation. Make it clear to your kids that while tattling is prohibited, knowing when to tell is encouraged.

There are three main areas that can help your child remember when they need to report to you.  Teach your child to contact an adult if they know someone involved in an activity that is:

  • Dangerous: Examples can include online chat rooms, accessibility to weapons, bullying or violent behaviors.
  • Destructive: Examples are sneaking out at night, playing with matches, using alcohol or drugs, driving recklessly.
  • Illegal/Immoral: Any situations involving sexual abuse, sexual harassment, lying about risky behavior, cheating, or stealing.

Depending on the age of your child, you will have to adjust this list to include situations that you feel are relevant to their daily lives.  The important thing is to be in constant communication with your kids to help them learn (and trust me, it’s a long learning curve!) how to differentiate between tattling and reporting.

So now, when my kids come running to me, I still hold up my hand, but instead of telling them “I don’t want to hear it,” I ask, “Are you tattling or reporting?”  This always gives them pause, and more often than not, they mumble, “tattling,” and then walk away.  If they persist with the tattling, I always tell them to “work it out the best you can.”  If they STILL are frustrated with their sibling or friend, I use my old stand-by:  “It looks like you’re having a tough time right now.  Maybe you just need to play by yourself for a while and cool down.”  This gives them the choice to actually take a time-out from whoever is bothering them, or to play solo.  What usually happens is they realize being alone is not any fun, they decide they’re done with tattling, and then they’re go back to playing together peacefully again. At least for now!


About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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