How to Put An End to Painful Tattling

If you happen to live with a tattle tale, you know how painful it can be. Whether it’s a Type-A child who wants everyone in the family to fall in line or a sibling rivalry that results in one trying to get the better of the other, it’s a practice that gets old really fast.

So, what’s a parent to do? Here are four tips for putting an end to tattling in your household.

1. Explain your expectations.

Children as young as four or five years old don’t understand the difference between dangerous behavior and irritating behavior. How do I know this?

Case in point:

I tell my five-year-old daughter to leave me alone while I’m putting her one-year-old sister to bed. It’s a process that takes anywhere from 10–20 minutes. My instruction: do not come into the bedroom unless it is an emergency.

Examples of perceived “emergencies” by my daughter:

  • She asked her brother to share a toy. Her brother refused.
  • One cat hissed at another cat.
  • There was a loud noise outside.
  • The TV program they were watching is over.
  • She would like fruit snacks.

Apparently, this behavior is typical of children my daughter’s age. Young kids tend to be very literal, as their cognitive development cannot recognize abstract reasoning yet, says Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., a child psychologist and parenting expert. So when a child sees a rule being broken by another child (or a cat, in my daughter’s instance), that child wants the rule-breaker to be punished.

In my case, I should better explain my expectations and use the term “dangerous” instead of “emergency.”

2. Don’t reward the attention-seeker.

Some children tattle because they want to one-up a sibling or another child. Their tattling behavior is a ploy to gain attention. Rewarding that attempt will only fuel the tattler’s fire and result in more tattling in the future.

Don’t make a huge deal out of the tattler’s information to keep the behavior from repeating.

3. Treat tattling as a teaching tool.

When children tattle, it’s a great opportunity for parents to build problem-solving skills. Typically the child is coming to the parent angry because of what another child has done.

First of all, a parent should never reward that behavior by instantly punishing the other child. Children elaborate and distort the truth, so punishing the other child without witnessing behavior firsthand would be unfair.

Second, sending the tattling child back to the situation with the task of figuring the problem out themselves will prepare that child for having to solve problems in school and in the workplace.

4. Understand that your child may be trying to do the right thing.

Your child’s tattling may not be malicious, it may actually be your child’s attempt at ensuring fairness and justice.

“Kids are so literal, and sometimes their tattling is about making the other kid look bad to get that sense of justice,” Dr. Balter explains to One way to approach the situation is to say, “Sometimes people don’t follow the rules the way they should. I know it’s upsetting to you because you are trying to do the right thing.”

Even I still struggle with the lack of fairness in the world! It’s a good way to explain that we will get frustrated by the actions of others.

5. Make tattling more difficult.

One idea I love is to ask your child to take tattling one step further to deter it. Ask your child to draw you a picture of the infraction he or she is reporting and leave it for you. More than likely, your child will decide the infraction isn’t worth it and will let it go.

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