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Is it tattling, or is it something important?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  July 13, 2010 09:25 AM

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"He took my toy!"
"She poked me!"
"He's in my seat!"
"Mom! She's BREATHING on me!"

Tattling starts early, and is most common with 5- to 10-year-olds -- for different reasons and with different consequences, of course. (By the time your kid is in high school, you might wish he would tattle more often.) While some kids are tattle because they're frustrated or bored, others may be honestly trying to solve a problem or report a dangerous situation.

Bullying complicates matters; in this digital day and age, it's not a cut-and-dried physical issue anymore. There's cyber-bullying and its devastating social and psychological consequences, mean girl scenarios, and even situations where the bully himself is also a victim. Many kids are unwilling to talk about bullying because they're worried that telling will make the abuse worse or, if they're not the victim, out of fear that the bully may turn on them instead -- which means that a blanket "no-tattling" policy would actually do more harm than good.

So how do you sift through the chatter and figure out whether the tattling is worth your time?

First, try to figure out why the child is tattling. Is it to keep someone out of danger? To protect himself? To get someone else in trouble? To vent frustration? To get attention?

Next, figure out your response. Would a simple "Thank you for telling me," suffice? Do you need to alert a higher authority, like the principal or a parent? Can the children resolve the issue themselves, or do you need to get involved?

At the preschool level, kids who tattle are often just trying to regain control of a situation. My youngest son's preschool teacher offered this nugget of wisdom: Draw a picture of an ear, hang it on the wall at child level, and when someone wants to tattle, tell them to tell it to "the ear." You can listen in and decide whether you need to intervene, or whether you simply want to tell the kids to work it out themselves.

In elementary school, tattling can be about power rather than conflict resolution. Sandy Kemsley, a former elementary school teacher, writes on "My third and fourth graders use to tattle all day long. I told them that I could not listen to that many tattles a day. Instead of saying no tattles, I told them they could have one tattle a day. I explained that it was more that fair because, I would still have to listen to 28 tattles. Once they tattled, they could not tattle again until the next day. They were so protective of that one tattle, that most of them didn't use it. In a couple of weeks the problem disappeared."

By the time your child is in junior high and high school, the issue isn't so much about preventing tattling than it is about getting kids to 'fess up in the first place. At this level, it's important to talk with your tween or teen about the difference between tattling (or "snitching") and informing an adult about a potentially harmful situation.

I can hear my preschoolers hissing, "I'm telling!" and "Don't tell Mama!" right now, and I think there may be stuffed animals involved, so I'll wrap this up by asking for your input. How do you handle tattle tales in your household? Are you concerned about getting them to stop, or getting them to tell you what's really going on?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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6 comments so far...
  1. My kids are generally pretty good about it. From the time they were preschoolers, when they started to tattle, I would tell them that unless someone was in danger or injured, it was tattling and I wasn't interested. I also say that other than in case of danger/injury, I don't want to hear any sentence starting with the sibling's name. I also tell them that they are welcome to ask for help with a situation, but they need to find a way to ask for help without tattling. Ie, not "I want the toy but X won't give it to me!" but "We can't figure out how to share the toy, can you help us?"

    Posted by akmom July 13, 10 01:11 PM
  1. akmom I like your ideas. We generally follow the "unless someone is in danger or hurt I don't want to hear about it" rule but recently we had to change that. My 4 and 6 year old sons now tend to problem solve with each other with their fists (and hands, and feet, and sometimes even teeth) so the new rule is that if they feel wronged, tell me about it and I will take it seriously and intervene before the fists start flying, even if it's about something as stupid as someone taking the clicker or playing with the other one's car. My six-year-old is a bit of a control freak so appealing to his sense of self control and showing that I mean it when I say that I will be a fair judge helps diffuse a lot of situations that used to spiral out of control. My four-year-old is just now learning to stand up for himself so he doesn't give an inch either. Hopefully this is just a passing phase because being a referee gets a bit annoying.

    Posted by Jen July 13, 10 04:33 PM
  1. I *hate* the "no tattling" rule, because it so very often is not communicated to children appropriately: they hear it as, "I am not supposed to tell Mom & Dad when someone does something that hurts me," rather than as "I shouldn't run to Mom & Dad with minor slights and bickering." I hope most parents understand that we don't want kids thinking they are not supposed to tell us when they are hurt by someone. Having a child get in trouble for "tattling," or scolding them for it, is the wrong message to send. But obviously, parents can't and shouldn't intervene with every little argument siblings have.

    I like akmom's approach of trying to get the kids to phrase it and think of it in a different way -- asking for help problem-solving a situation. The idea is to solve a problem together, not get someone else in trouble.

    Posted by jlen July 13, 10 08:47 PM
  1. My 3 are just one year apart from each other (age range 4-6). I find tattling a constant issue but realize that they are developing but not yet able to determine what is dangerous. I do not mind being told about infractions to "house rules" since for the most part, they are safety driven (not jumping on bed, no going outside without an adult, no pushing/shoving, etc). My solution however is to tell them to work it out with the other with mommy as a referee (if needed). Of course, this may backfire when they figure out to all "agree" on something mommy doesn't!! LOL

    Posted by Michelle July 14, 10 09:06 AM
  1. Double D. You do tell when it's dangerous or destructive. You work it out when it's about who gets the snow white dress-up costume.
    jlen, I totally agree. The no tattling rule also gives serious cover to bullies at school when it gets ingrained.

    Posted by Lizzie July 14, 10 12:29 PM
  1. I have a 5 yr old son, my neighbors son is 10 and when all the kids are out playing the 10 yr old tries to do anything to tattle on my son, on occasion, if my son hurts him accidently and it is just mildly, he will go into a screaming bloody murder scene, trying to get him in trouble, I am really starting to dislike this kid, any advice

    Posted by Mom of 3 September 10, 10 10:16 PM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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