Teaching Children Differences of Tattling and Telling

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“She just dropped all of the glitter on the floor and didn’t put down the paper like you told us,” said the brother to his mother.

“Now, what did I tell you about tattling on your sister?” said the mother, “You let me worry about your sister.”

The mother, like most parents, is experiencing the tattling phase of child development. It is an age that tends to occur between the ages of four to seven years old. It comes at a time when children have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives and knowing how society expects them to behave. These are the same skills which help older children successfully navigate their social environment.

Due to these difficulties, children are taught to follow rules. At this age, rules are seen as absolute, black and white. Rules are concrete and straightforward. Consider some childhood rules such as, keeping your hands to yourself or using your inside voice.

Children who have been taught the rules and praised for following them develop a sense of pride in mastering them. These same children also react poorly when they see other children violating those rules. So much so, they feel impelled to tell an adult about it.

The problem for parents dealing with children who tattle is that there are situations when a child should tell an adult when rules are being broken. The trick is to teach children the difference between tattling and telling on others.

The first step is to help children differentiate tattling from telling. Tattling is reporting on another child for doing something wrong but the situation is safe and the tattling child could handle the issue on his own. For example, the boy could have told his sister to clean up the glitter rather than reporting it to his mother.

Telling requires a child to tell an adult about a situation where another child is not safe or that the child cannot handle on their own. If the boy’s sister was standing on a wobbly art table and could fall off, then the boy should tell his mother as his sister could get hurt.

Using concrete examples of the difference between tattling and telling can be helpful for children. Parents should think of different situations that can illustrate situations involve both tattling and telling.

Even after explaining the difference and providing concrete examples, it can still be hard for children to fully understand the concepts. Parents will need to frequently remind them of the difference. A way to do this is to take advantage of teachable moments. When a child reports on a situation, parents should discuss with the child whether it is telling or tattling and if there were ways the child could resolve the situation on his own.

After a while, children who are reminded about the differences between tattling and telling will begin to tattle less. This occurs more quickly when parents praise children for handling situations on their own and praising them for telling their parents when it is necessary.

The tattling phase of childhood can annoy parents but it is a passing developmental phase. Parents can take steps to help children learn the difference between tattling and telling that empowers children to solve rule-breaking situations on their own but still protect them when dangerous situations arise.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on September 2, 2016

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