Delilah is a textbook tattletale. This honest-to-a-fault 5-year-old has been tattling on everyone—from playground pals to family pets—since she first learned how. Her compulsive tattling on her older brother turns our home into the set of a TV courtroom drama, with mom and dad appointed as judge and jury for every episode.
But as tiresome as this daily drama can be for parents, it’s also reassuring to know that your little law-abiding citizen simply wants to follow the rules—and wants others to do the same. Kids want control over their universe, explains Julie Freedman Smith, a parenting coach, and co-owner of Calgary-based parenting consultancy Parenting Power. “If another child is bending the rules, they’ll go to someone in control to set them straight.”
The itch to snitch is common in kids this age, and their motivations include seeking attention and one-upping siblings. The thought of winning a parent’s favour or attention can be particularly appealing. “When kids tattle, it pulls adults away from what they were doing and draws them into their world, right where the child wants them,” says Freedman Smith.
But regardless of the motive, it’s normal for kids to seek an adult’s help to smooth over conflicts, says Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais. “Younger kids are just learning social skills, so they defer to their parents to make things right.”
If tattling is an inevitable part of childhood, like skinned knees and wiggly teeth, how do you make sure the tales your child is telling are ones that need to be told?
The next time your child rats out his rival, Freedman Smith suggests using it as an opportunity to teach him a valuable life skill: the difference between tattling and telling. “Tattling is getting someone into trouble, while telling is getting someone out of trouble,” she says. It’s important for kids to learn the difference early on because it has big implications in their teen years.
“Our kids need to know they can come to us for help when someone is in trouble, facing big-kid issues like bullying or drugs,” says Freedman Smith. Desmarais agrees: “We want to teach our kids that, in this world, we all look out for each other to keep everyone safe.”
So as parents, how do we discourage tattling and encourage telling?
Point out real-world situations around you and turn it into a game, suggests Freedman Smith: Ask your child, “Is this something you would tell on or is that tattling?” Kids’ books like A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue (National Center for Youth Issues) by Julia Cook can help expand the discussion.
Praise kids for telling when they should (“Thanks for keeping your little sister safe by telling me she was playing with marbles”) and for settling sticky situations on their own (“I love how you found a solution without tattling”) to reinforce those behaviours.
Parents may need to help kids this age brainstorm when it comes to problem-solving, says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist and author based in Thornhill, Ont. For example, she suggests saying something like, “It sounds like you were frustrated when your sister put all the crayons on her side of the table. What can you say to help her share with you?”
Encourage your child to share good deeds instead of bad ones. For example, at the dinner table, give your children a chance to share something positive they saw someone do, says Dimerman. Parents can share random acts of kindness they witnessed during their workday and avoid gossip and negative talk about others—the adult equivalent of tattling.
Want to dim the lights on all the tattling drama? Skip the long monologue to avoid giving your child much attention and reinforcing the behaviour, says Freedman Smith. “When a child tattles, our suggestion is that you say, ‘How does that affect you? What do you need from me?’” Planning some short answers can help parents feel more confident and stay calm when dealing with tattling, she adds.