Children who come to adults for help in solving problems should be praised. “See something, say something” is a concept we must encourage kids to embrace, especially in light of the very real dangers that threaten their safety, if not their very lives. It’s the hypercritical and often petty tattling that some children fall into that can be problematic.
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Intention is what distinguishes a “teller” from a “tattler.” Telling is distinguished as communication critical to stopping or preventing harmful behaviors and preserving safety. In contrast, tattling informs an authority figure about a perceived injustice that either does not exist or significantly affects the child who is decrying it. But teaching children how to handle the latter can be just as important as letting them know how to recognize the former.
Being able to navigate tense moments and situations with peers and siblings on their own enables children to develop communication and negotiation skills, it teaches them the art and value of compromise, and it feeds their developing independence. Parents and caregivers can absolutely cultivate these positives.
Identify what’s behind the behavior
Tattling is often motivated by a child’s sense of justice, and what they believe and have been taught is acceptable behavior. It may also be driven by a desire to be seen as important or to gain power in a social setting. A child may not know how to make friends. They may simply crave attention and — even if it’s negative — have found that tattling gets them that attention.
Body language is often a giveaway. Tattling may be accompanied by a smirk or a flamboyant presentation (while children who are telling an adult about the concerning or disturbing behavior of a peer may sound factual or embarrassed, depending upon the circumstances). Whatever the dynamics are that fuel a tattler’s actions, it’s important to address and define them in order to curb the practice. There are social repercussions for kids who develop a reputation as tattlers: they get left out.
Keep calm, stay quiet and listen
When your little one comes running to you like Chicken Little mourning the falling sky over some perceived slight or unfair treatment, calmly determine what’s really going on so you know how to react. Petty issues often quickly fizzle out when adults refrain from overreacting. Once you confirm that no one is hurt or in danger, listen to your child’s grievances and then ask them what they think they can do to remedy the situation. Gently placing the ball in their court will nudge them toward empowerment and resilience.
One method for teaching kids to gauge the importance of a supposed grievance is to ask that they write it down. Seeing the issue in black and white can help them to distinguish whether or not it’s even worth telling, and the passage of even just a short amount of time may erase any urgency they’ve attached to it. However, if the concern is a valid one, the exercise will also bring the most important issues to the fore.
Cultivate insight and assertiveness
Discuss other children’s negative behavior and ask if your child has ever done anything similar. If they answer in the affirmative, ask them how they should have behaved in that situation. If they say no, gently explain that someone else's minor transgressions are not their problem to solve, but do frame conflicts in terms of recognizing which types of problems should be addressed. A situation where a child is directly involved, like being the recipient of a threatening comment or physical aggression such as a push or shove, is a sure example of a behavior to report.
Get in the habit early on of asking kids to tell their siblings and friends how they feel about things that upset them and to talk to their peers directly. Even if you grew up hearing that “nobody likes a tattle tale,” it is important to convey to children, especially those with special needs, when they should ask for help from an adult instead of acting on their own to resolve a disagreement.
K. Lori Hanson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and chief of research, evaluation and strategic planning at The Children’s Trust, has more than 20 years’ experience assessing critical data and community research regarding the needs of children and families. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.