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

Posted December 1, 2008 by

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 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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  1. Dr. Joan Report

    Brooke,

    It’s a good question and highlights the importance of talking to your kids prior to such play dates. One thing I always told my boys (who were also pretty excitable and capable of rumbling with their friends)was that if their friend did something to antagonize them, they had two choices: First, you can instruct your son to use his words to say that he doesn’t like it and to please stop. Remind your son that his hitting back is not an option. Practice with your son how to say, “Please stop!” loudly and firmly. This also puts the other parent on notice that their seemingly innocent child is instigating a problem.

    Second, if the behavior of the other child does not cease, then it is all right for your son to report what is going on to you and you can decide what to do next. You might talk over with your son how he feels, it may require giving him a pep talk about what to say to his friend, or you may simply have to leave the play date.

    The biggest lesson you need to emphasize here is that your son cannot hit whenever he feels bugged by a friend. It’s a normal reaction to want to hit back, but your job is to help him find ways to not do this. By discussing this with your son prior to the play date and sharing with him what the consequences will be if he does hit, you are preparing him to handle himself in a dicey play date situation.

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  2. Brooke Report

    Dr. Joan. Thank you for the tips.

    Going further with your comments about dealing with play dates that tattle, how do you deal when your child hits, but as the result of the other child doing something equally antagonistic but not outwardly aggressive. Often in play dates, my son is the last one standing. I always reprimand him for hitting but am never sure how to deal with the other child who walked them down the path, particularly when the parent is there and is acting like their child is just a victim.

    Reply
  3. Marsha Report

    It’s interesting and encouraging to me to see how infrequently my 6 year old and her friends tattle. Two years ago, it was hard to have a conversation with the almost constant telling on (girls are very prone to this, I’ve noticed)

    I see a lot more conciliation and negotiating going on these days!

    Reply
  4. Dr. Joan Report

    Elisabeth,

    It’s a good question! When the play date begins to tattle, do the following: 1) Get down to their level and hear them out; 2) Be an empathic listener: “Wow, it really looks like Alex hurt your feelings. I have a great idea! Go talk with Alex about this and see if you two can work it out”; 3)If the play date comes back, have an answer ready for him. “It sounds like this is a rough time for you two right now. There’s a whole bunch of crayons and paper in the kitchen. Feel free to color in there until you two can fix this”. This puts the responsibility on the two kids to work this out among themselves and leaves you out of the equation.

    Of course if there is a true reason the play date is reporting to you (i.e., being hit, being tempted to break the rules, etc.) then intervene and talk it over with the two kids. But if this is simply a case of little kids arguing, give them every opportunity to use their own brains and power to resolve it. If the parent is in the room with you, feel free to explain your policy on tattling versus reporting and why you think it’s important to let kids work out solutions to their problems.

    Reply
  5. Elisabeth Report

    Dr. Joan: Thanks for this post. I often get confused by what constitutes tattling and what is actually reporting. Now I know what to say!! By the way, in the case of playdates, do you think it’s OK to use the same words with other people’s kids? (Especially if the other mom or dad is there in the room?)

    Reply
  6. Chris Report

    While the whole article is on message and to the point, the last paragraph really sums it up, and I agree with all of it. My son frequently has something to report after school and thankfully rarely tattles. We encourage him to seek help in a situation only after he tries to resolve it himself. This is why the last paragraph really struck home with me – we must have faith in the kids to resolve their own problems. When they do, it gives them a higher sense of achievement compared to having an adult take care of it for them. But when a situation is beyond their ability to resolve, they have to know when to report. By the way, even though over-tattling is not good, some is useful to us parents so we can keep a finger on the pulse of things outside our field of view.

    Reply

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