Tattling is a common behavior particularly for children four to seven years old. It is also an unpopular behavior particularly with classmates and older siblings. My Claire was about five years old when she started tattling non-stop on her older sister. It took about a week for Alicen to have enough. Claire was telling on big things like, “she is hurting me,” and little things like, “she is almost touching me.”
The first round of defense is to teach children the difference between tattling v. what we call helpful telling. Helpful telling is when they come to tell you something that you want or need to know about. This includes when someone is hurt or in danger or getting their feelings squashed. Define this with children and give them examples. Helpful telling would include, “she hit me,” “her chair is too close to the stairs,” and, “they are calling him names and he is crying.” These are things that need an adult’s intervention, children are showing they aren’t yet able to handle the situation.
Once children understand the difference, it is on the parent to consistently respond. Parents should intervene when it is helpful telling and not when it is tattling. When the child says, “her chair is too close to the stairs,” a parent can say, “thank you for telling me, that’s helpful,” and intervene. When the child says, “she is looking at me funny,” a parent can say, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, go tell her to stop.”
Done consistently, this should start to curb tattling. It makes tattling ineffective. If it’s still happening too often, parents can add a logical negative consequence to make tattling costly to the complaining child. The answer is to have the tattling child say something nice about the child they just told on. In our house Claire said, “she is breathing on me.” I responded, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, but first, tell me something nice about Alicen.” This was painful for Claire, it took her a few minutes of saying, “I can’t think of anything,” before she said, “if I have trouble with the tv, she helps me change the channel.” I said without laughing, “good enough, go.” Children do not want to say something nice about the child they came to tattle on. Done consistently, this really dampens the behavior.