“Mom! Johnny is doing [fill in the black with an obnoxious activity]!”
Nobody likes a tattletale. Yet, it is a difficult behavior to extinguish in our children and often we’re not even sure that we want to eliminate it. After all, we want our children to develop the ability to speak truth to power. Speaking that truth, though, when it isn’t appropriate is the challenge that our children need to negotiate.
Our children often see the world in black and white which is developmentally appropriate for young children. They see rules as fixed and often don’t understand that shades of grey exist. As adults, we frequently operate within these grey areas, so we understand that rules can shift with changing situations. Seeing a rule broken can trigger tattling. They may see themselves as being helpful by citing the infraction.
Tattling can also occur because of a desire for attention for themselves (and perhaps a desire for the other child to receive some negative attention). When we make a big deal out of tattling, we feed into this need for attention and encourage the behavior to occur.
Key to working with tattling is to help your child figure out why they are sharing the information with you. Start with the open ended question, “Why are you telling me this?” Use this to pull out the motivation for the tattling.
In our home, we differentiate between tattling and helping by asking the question, “Are you getting someone into trouble or out of danger?” We want to make sure that our children are never reluctant to share when something potentially dangerous is occurring. Asking this part of the question helps shape their understanding of danger and can shape them into being proactive instead of being a bystander.
Getting someone into trouble goes right to the heart of the tattling. If the motivation is simply to get attention and get someone else into trouble, asking this helps the child understand that his role is not to serve as a proxy for you. We politely respond with a thank you and remind him that this isn’t his job, it’s ours.
It’s important to remember for elementary age children and younger, tattling is an age appropriate behavior. The challenge for us as parents is to turn it from a nuisance into a teachable moment where kids start to learn when they should be speaking up.