Why kids tattle and what you can do about it
“No one likes a tattletale” is a popular prose used by adults, and it's easy to understand why! Tattling means reporting a wrong behavior or situation. Examples of tattling are a child reporting another kid took their toy away, or telling their parents that their sibling is not turning off the TV at the appropriate time. Even though it is a common behavior, constant tattling from children can quickly get on our nerves.
Most, if not all children will tattle at some point - so chances are you have a child who is already tattle-telling or will in the future. Fortunately, there are ways to handle this behavior in a positive way that encourages your child to become a problem solver while still fostering open lines of communication between you and your child.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
Why do children tattle?
Just like any other behavior, looking at the “why” behind it can help us build the skills necessary to solve the problem.
They are learning about rules and morals
By age four, children are able to distinguish when a situation is unfair and when a rule is not being followed . Because of their social-emotional development, young children thrive on rules and instructions and are only starting to develop abstract thinking. If you pair this with their innate need for praise and wanting to help, tattle-telling is a natural and common behavior for children when they are learning about rules.
They don’t feel confident handling the situation on their own
If a rule is being broken, or an unfair situation is occurring, young children might be lacking the skills or the confidence to handle the situation on their own and feel the need to go to an adult to help them handle it - reporting the behavior explicitly instead of asking directly for help.
They are seeking adult attention
As human beings, we seek connection, and kiddos crave one-on-one moments with their caregivers. Sometimes a child tattletales because they know that they will get attention from their parents or caregivers. Depending on the child’s age, it might be very difficult for them to understand that not all rule-breaking needs to be reported.
They want to get another child in trouble
Between 3 - 7 years of age, children start attending educational environments, and this is when they start expanding their knowledge about human relationships and cause and effect in terms of relationships . Kids quickly discover that if they tattle on a classmate or sibling, that child might get in trouble or they might get praise from an adult.
How should parents respond to tattling?
Responding appropriately to tattling is important. We want our children to understand that tattling is not appropriate, but that they do need to report unsafe situations to adults and that as their caregivers, you are always available to talk to them about their lives and concerns. When your child comes to you tattling, avoid shaming your child, and acknowledge that you have heard their concern (this helps build trust and self-esteem). Since you don’t want to encourage your child to keep tattling by praising the behavior, keep your response light and neutral:
“Oh, looks like you are worried that your sister is not turning the TV off. Thank you for letting me know.”
“Oh, your friend took away all the toys? Looks like they are having trouble taking turns. Let’s go see what we can do.”
Depending on the situation, you can brainstorm with your kiddo about possible solutions on how to handle the situation next time.
Telling vs. tattling
The main difference between telling and tattling is that tattling reports a safe situation that a child could potentially handle. Tattling can also come from a place of wanting the other person to get reprimanded. Telling, on the other hand, reports an unsafe situation and comes from a place of worry, concern, and need for protection. Children learn from examples, visuals, and repetition.
Like any other behavior we want to correct, prevention is key. Let young children know that it is important to tell an adult when someone is in danger or hurt, but that it is not okay to tattle about something that doesn't hurt anyone or anything. Explaining to your child, with clear examples, about tattling vs. telling is useful to help them learn the difference and empower them to handle the situation appropriately in the future.
If your child is constantly tattling about another child not sharing, have a conversation with them about what words to use. Here is an example:
“Hey kiddo, I see that you are frequently coming to me to tell me about your friend not sharing their toys. How about we practice some words that you can tell your friend if this happens again?”
Or if they are constantly tattling on their peers, you can explain that not all rule-breaking needs to be reported:
“Honey, thank you for letting me know that your sister is not cleaning up her room. I understand you want to make sure rules are followed, rules are important, but when a rule is broken and no one is unsafe, it is best if you let mommy and/or daddy take care of it.”
Helping your child understand the difference between tattling and telling is important so that the behavior does not continue, but that they know when to alert an adult of an unsafe situation.
Q: What is considered tattling?
The meaning of tattling is when a child makes a report of a situation that is safe and can potentially be handled by the child themself. This is different from “telling” — where a child lets an adult know that there is an unsafe situation.
Q: When should kids tell?
Kids should report a situation to an adult when the situation is unsafe for them, or unsafe for another child, and needs adult intervention. Usually, if the child is telling something out of concern for the wellbeing of others, it is a situation that should be told and not considered tattling.
Q: What do children tattle about?
Examples of tattling can be: A child reporting to a teacher that another child isn’t cleaning up properly after themselves, or a child telling their parent that their sibling is refusing to share toys.
Q: How often do kids tattle?
Depending on the child, parents or caregivers can hear one tattle a day, or up to six, according to research . Kids are more likely to tattle when they are in social environments with other children, as the reports are often about sharing, small physical aggressions, and rule-breaking.
Q: How do I stop tattling?
Discussions with your child about what constitutes tattling and what doesn't, alongside real-life examples, can help prevent this behavior. Additionally, work on problem-solving skills with your child and empower them to use their voice when confronted with a situation that can be handled between kids.
Q: Is tattling a form of bullying?
Generally, tattling in young children comes from a place of wanting to follow rules and receive praise from adults. When tattling on a child consistently, with the intent of hurting the other child and getting them into trouble, it may be considered a form of bullying.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
Schmidt, et al. (2012). Young children enforce social norms selectively depending on the violator’s group affiliation, Cognition, Volume 124, Issue 3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010027712001242
V, Kozachek. (2018). The age and the psychological conditions of the manipulative behavior of preschool children. Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328120075_The_age_and_the_psychological_conditions_of_the_manipulative_behavior_of_preschool_children
Ingram, Gordon & Bering, Jesse. (2010). Children’s Tattling: The Reporting of Everyday Norm Violations in Preschool Settings. Child development. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44697445_Children's_Tattling_The_Reporting_of_Everyday_Norm_Violations_in_Preschool_Settings