Tattling vs. Telling

As a mother, I find several behaviors very annoying. Fortunately for me, my kids are too old for my least favorites. Whining is at the top of the list; I am especially annoyed when the first request is made in a whiny voice. [Kids, if you have to whine, please at least wait until your parents have said no.] Hmm, perhaps I should write a post about that.

Today’s post is about number two on the list: tattling. According to Merriam-Webster, tattle means “to tell a parent, teacher, etc., about something bad or wrong that another child has done.” I add to that definition, “in order to get the child into trouble.” All teachers and all parents with more than one child know too well how much children enjoy tattling. Mom, Cathy took my car! That’s ’cause he was touching my juice box! Well, she called me stupid! Only because he said tigers are better than cheetahs! And apparently, tattling is most fun in small contained spaces such as cars and during very busy times such as dinner prep. The enjoyment afforded to children by tattling is directly correlated with the level of exhaustion of the adult in charge.

For the past several months, I have been working with a fourth grader who struggles socially. Quentin is a super sweet, super bright, and super cute little boy who has significant deficits in social skills, in particular social perception. His parents had done a lot of reading about Autism Spectrum Disorders before coming to see me, and they believed that their son may have a mild form of Asperger Syndrome (for more information about Asperger Syndrome, click here). I confirmed this diagnosis.

Because of his social skills deficits, Quentin has a hard time developing and maintaining friendships. In addition, he is a stickler about rules; he is very careful about following rules himself, and he expects those around him to do the same. When they don’t, Quentin frequently runs to a teacher or a recess aide to report on the misbehavior of a classmate. This tattling behavior is not helping him in his quest to make friends. In a recent session, Quentin commented,

I keep telling the grown-ups, but they just say they don’t want to hear it.  Quentin, age 9

To be fair to children, there are many times when it is appropriate to tell an adult about the negative behavior of another child. The challenge is to help children distinguish between tattling and telling. Here’s how I do that.

First, I define “tattling” as telling an adult about another child’s behavior for the sake of getting the other child in trouble – not to protect someone, not to prevent something bad from happening, and not to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Next, I encourage kids to ask themselves a question in order to help them decide whether to inform an adult about another child’s behavior. The question is about the seriousness of the behavior: Is the behavior dangerous, destructive, or a violation of someone’s rights? Using examples, I make sure they can correctly identify behaviors that meet each of those three criteria. Smearing lip gloss on the jungle gym is dangerous; crumbling granola bars on one’s own sneakers is not (these are real examples reported to teachers by Quentin; I could not make this stuff up!). Writing on the sliding board with indelible marker is destructive; sliding wood chips down it is not. Telling a girl she can’t join a game is a violation of someone’s rights; having to go second in a game rather than first is not. Once it is clear that a child can make the distinction, I state the following rule:

Rule #1: Most of the time, only behaviors that are dangerous, destructive, or violate someone’s rights need to be reported to an adult. If a behavior is not dangerous, destructive, or violating someone’s rights, then it is best to ignore it.

Once a child understands Rule #1, I move on to how to tell an adult. The best “tells” include a statement about why it’s important that the adult know about the behavior and a request for assistance. It is also helpful to make the tell without a whiny voice.

Rule #2: When telling an adult about another child’s behavior, use a calm voice, explain why it is important for an adult to know, and ask the adult for help.

We then practice good telling. For the above examples, good tells might sound like these:

  • Excuse me, Mrs. Jones. Amanda is smearing lip gloss on the jungle gym and I am afraid someone might slip. Can you help me?
  • Mrs. Jones, sorry to interrupt, but Albert is drawing on the sliding board with a Sharpie. I told him to stop but he wouldn’t. Will you help?
  • Mr. Jones, can you help me? Those kids said I can’t play basketball but that isn’t fair to me.

This approach will not work for every child in every school in every situation or with every adult. I often get feedback from children that some adults won’t intervene, even when the behavior they are reporting is serious and when they ask the adult to help. In these cases, I contact school personnel or encourage the parents to do so. The purpose of this is to seek input from the teacher or counselor about how they prefer for students to handle these difficult situations. Once the parent or I has connected with a teacher or guidance counselor, I typically find that, as long as the child is following both rules, the adults are more likely to respond in ways that are helpful.

For parents, when a child reports the negative behavior of a sibling, a simple “Are you tattling or telling?” will often discourage the former. If the child is unclear or persists in the behavior, then it can be useful to ask about each of the three criteria for telling. Such an interaction might go like this:


Dad: Are you tattling or telling?

C: But, Dad, she shouldn’t do that. She’s making a huge mess!

D: Okay, your sister is making a big mess with the books. Is that dangerous? 

C: No.

D: Is Carla destroying the books?

C: No, but she’s making a huge mess and I AM NOT GOING TO CLEAN IT UP!

D: Okay. Is she doing something that is unfair to you?

C: No. But, she shouldn’t do that.

D: Are you trying to get your sister into trouble?

C: Maybe.

D: Well, no need for you to get involved. I’ll handle it. Go back to your puzzles.

C. Urgh! Fine.

Adults need to avoid inadvertently reinforcing tattling by giving the tattler a lot of attention. When addressing tattling, be brief and matter-of-fact, and send the child along his way quickly. In instances of telling, give the child the message that you will handle the situation and send her on her way. This will prevent the teller from taking on a role best reserved for parents, teachers, or other adults.

The approach described above worked very well for Quentin. The use of clear rules fit well with his affinity for rule-following as well as with his difficulty making subtle distinctions in social situations. Most of the “tattle tales” I have worked with, including my own children when they were much younger, easily learned the difference between tattling and telling. As tempting as it is to tell kids that you don’t want to hear it, doing so will not help them figure out when to tell and when not to. Projecting ahead a few years when these tattlers become adolescents, there will most certainly be times when telling an adult about another teen’s behavior is very important. If you have given the message that you don’t want to hear, you run the risk that you won’t. That may not be a big deal when the behavior is smearing lip gloss on a jungle gym; it will most decidedly be a big deal when the behavior involves substances, sexual acting out, self-injury, bullying or other behaviors that are dangerous, destructive, or violations of others’ rights.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Tattling vs. Telling

  1. Pingback: Mom and Dad, Trust Your Instincts | What Kids Want Us to Know

  2. Pingback: The Autistic Way - The Write Moms

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