Tips for Stopping Toddler Tattling

My daughter is a compulsive tattler. This sweet, innocent little 5-year-old has no shame when it comes to calling people out and very often it’s not just other children or her younger brother. Take for example our latest trip to Target. When we pulled in to the parking lot she made sure to point out that the car parked next to us was over the line. When we walked into the store she loudly proclaimed that the woman who spit out her gum in front of us was littering. And, after hearing a lady behind us in the checkout lane use the word “stupid” while talking on the phone, she announced to the rest of the store what a very bad word that was and how the lady was not being nice.

In general, this type of tattling doesn’t bother me as much as the constant tabs she keeps on her 1-year-old brother. After all, people shouldn’t park over the line and spit their gum out on the sidewalk. However, nobody likes a tattletale, and I don’t want my little informant to spend her life isolated from others. So, is there a healthy amount of tattling, and how can I teach these tattle boundaries? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a plan to help tame tattletales. The AAP acknowledges that tattling is perfectly normal behavior for preschoolers. It’s during these early school-age years that children begin to develop social skills, specifically in relation to their peers. Children this age also have a strong and very literal idea of what is right and wrong and they expect everyone to abide by the same set of rules. When these rules are perceived as “broken” by others, this can lead to tattling.

Children psychologists agree that there are many reasons why young children tattle, and before you begin working to prevent it—it’s important to understand the root cause:

Are they doing it for attention?

Sometimes tattlers just want some recognition and may think that they can build their own status by making someone look bad.

Is it about power?

Some tattlers like to be in charge, which is often the case for my daughter when she tattles on her younger brother for eating an extra cookie and leaving his toys out. She just likes to keep him and sometimes other kids in line.

Are they strict on rules?

Most often, though, tattling is simply children noticing that others aren’t following the same set of rules as themselves. Since they hold this very literal view of the world around them, as their cognitive development cannot recognize abstract reasoning yet, they expect all rules to be inflexible.

Of course there are benefits to having kids who sing like a canary about every offense. We want our kids to report when there is a potential problem and for them to know that intervention is sometimes necessary, especially in the case of bullying or abuse. The AAP says that’s the key to teaching kids about tattling—explaining when it’s appropriate to blab and when it’s better to keep quiet, or tattling versus telling. When explaining this difference to kids, teach them that tattling means that they are trying to get someone in trouble, while telling means that they are trying to help.

Putting this lesson into action means talking it out. The next time my daughter comes to tell me something her brother did, I can simply ask, “Are you telling me about what your brother did to help him or hurt him?” If she says she wants to help, we can assess whether there is really a need for assistance or how she can take control of the situation herself without my help. If she says she wants to hurt him or get him in trouble, then it’s time for a talk about how tattling to hurt others isn’t acceptable.

Teaching this help or hurt approach will slowly help your child learn the difference between tattling and telling on his or her own. Just make sure you also teach your children that they can always tell you anything that makes them feel sad, uncomfortable or scared. And if your little rule-follower points out poorly behaving adults at the store, let it go — they probably deserve it.

Categories: Little Ones

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