"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 Teachnology.com: "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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.