Curb Tattling

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.

Avoid Focusing on the Sibling Relationship Specifically

I grew up with a brother. I know it is natural for siblings to bicker and fight sometimes. I also know it is easy to put pressure on their individual relationship when you are addressing the behaviors. I hear parents saying things like, “you will love your brother. He is going to be your best friend some day.” and, “In this house we will all like each other!” This pressure tends to weigh heavy and if anything, backfire.

The idea is to address the behavior and teach the social skills in general and let that trickle down to the sibling relationship. If they are name-calling, teach and practice how we speak to people, make a rule that we all call each other by name. If they are grabbing toys, teach about turn-taking and sharing without mentioning siblings by name. Whatever the difficulty, go broad and focus on skill building first rather than directing them back to each other specifically.

During all of this, focus on giving them opportunities to share play and space. Provide fun projects and outings together. You are giving them a good chance to practice all the social skills you are teaching without forcing the flow.

Siblings Both Wanting Your Attention

Dear Dr. Rene,

Thank you for the great class on sibling rivalry. My big problem now though is that my  one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half year olds are competeing for my attention, expecially physically. If one is sitting on my lap, the other wants to be there too. If I am holding one to comfort their crying, the other will often start crying too wanting to be picked up. If I walk out of the room (where I was sitting with my husband and both children) and one child follows, the other will drop what they are doing and follow too. Is is exhausting physically and emotionally. They do not demand the same of my husband and tend to not want to be with him in these moments. Please help!


Betty, mother of two

Hi Betty,

It seems there is a short term answer and a long term answer here. In the short term, focus on teaching turn taking. Start by highlighting when they take turns with toys and when they have a turn with the preferred blue cup at lunch. Talk about how patiently the other is waiting for a turn. Coach them on how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait including finding something else to play with or do. With the three-and-a-half-year-old, try to introduce an exchange of turn taking at least once a day. When she is happily playing with her toys, sit beside and start to play with one of them, comment how you are enjoying you turn and ask if she’d like the next turn. In a minute, remember to give her a turn and then ask if you can have it back when she’s done. If she remembers to give you another turn, comment on how nice that was. Coaching can include reading books about turn taking and sharing as well as having puppet shows or role plays to illustrate the point. Here is a list of related children’s books:

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

The idea is to teach the general social skill first. Once the kids have had this practice and coaching, carry that language over to taking turns on your lap or being held. I know it can be difficult to hear their upset while they wait, but there is benefit in learning to wait, have patience and to delay gratification. Do your best to give them empathy, but follow through and finish the turn you are on before moving to the next.

In the long term, be sure you and your husband are each getting some individual time with each child at least once a month. This can be as small as going to the grocery store together if the child is getting to help pick items and there is open, pleasant conversation.  You might also read Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish that lays out other guidelines to reduce sibling rivalry.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Sibling Tips

If you are working to improve sibling relationships, it is suggested that you take the pressure off the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you will love your sister,” “your brother is going to be your best friend for life,” or, “we are a family of love,” which puts tremendous pressure on the individual relationship, focus on teaching them how to treat people in general. Teach children play skills, emotion language, to listen to others when they speak and encourage a sense of empathy. The idea is to teach them social skills and allow that to trickle down to their individual relationship.
It is often beneficial to allow for the expression of negative emotions between siblings. When children are allowed to express negative emotions, they can move forward from the situation. When emotions are denied or negated, children have to dig in their heels. They have to get bigger and louder about the feelings or bottle it up, and it comes out in other ways. Accept and validate the emotions, then help them to express emotions in constructive ways, so they can move on.

Competition and Being First

Do your children struggle with winning and losing in play?

Are they crushed when they can’t be the first or the best at something?

Here are some tips to help you calm the competition:

  • Coach your child on how to be a good winner and a good loser – Being a good winner includes congratulating the other players, celebrating in ways that consider others and encouraging more play. Being a good loser includes congratulating the winner, expressing disappointment in comfortable ways and continuing to participate as appropriate. Teaching this can take a great deal of time and effort.
  • Even if it is really difficult, don’t avoid playing – Children who struggle with competition need more practice, not less.
  • Start small with competition – If your child has difficulty with winning and losing, it may be best to start small. It may be easier to manage emotions with a game like tic-tac-toe or Hullabaloo that takes a minute to play rather than a game like Candyland that requires a 20 minute investment.
  • Focus on cooperative efforts – For children who need to be the first or the best, offer cooperative activities more often. Think a movie rather than a board game or a relay to beat the clock rather than a race against each other.
  • Play cooperative games – Snail’s Pace Race, Colorama and Caterpillar Crawl all by Ravensburger are fun cooperative board games. You can make Candyland a cooperative effort by all being the blue guy and seeing how fast everyone working together can get him to the castle. Everybody Wins! by Sobel offers hundreds of non-competitive play ideas.
  • Read about it – Good books include The Mightiest by Kasza, Winners Never Quit and Go for the Goal: A Champions Guide to Winning in Soccer and in Life both by Mia Hamm, Timothy Goes to School by Wells and Competition: Deal with It by Messier.

Children can join my Competition Boot Camp – Sat. Oct. 9th:

Sibling Discipline

During my workshops on Siblings, I often get questions about discipline. During my workshops on Discipline, I often get questions about siblings. If you have more than one child, you know these topics often overlap. I am going to provide answers here to some of those FAQs.

  • Praise Individually – When you praise a child, be sure that you are speaking to them directly, not trying to impact their sibling’s behavior. This means you don’t say, “Johnny, you cleaned your room! It always looks so nice in your room,” and then glare at his sister hoping she will hear and clean her’s. When you give a child praise, your intent should be clean. You should be praising for something you noticed, NOT to impact their siblings.
  • Discipline Individually – I know this is sometimes unavoidable, but as a parent avoid it when you can. This means if just Johnny is misbehaving at the playground try to find consequences other than having to leave the playground which would negatively impact his well behaved siblings.
  • Avoid Asking “Who Had It First?” and, “Who Started It?” – You are likely going to get two very different versions of the same story, and it often leaves you in just as unsure a place as you were before. You may also end up erring on the side of the one with the better verbal skills or louder crying. Worse yet, you may be encouraging them to lie. The answer is to, instead, state what you know, “I see you are struggling and both want that doll,” then move forward together.
  • Fair is Not Equal, Fair is Everyone Has Their Needs Met – This is a hard one to realize as so many parents strive to treat their children equally. Your children, however, are likely quite different from each other. They may be different ages and sexes. They may have strikingly different personalities. All of this means their needs are different. Let’s say you are the parent of an impulsive seven-year-old boy and a reserved three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Let’s say, on different days they each squabble over a toy and hit a playmate. Everyone having their needs met means it is okay that your discipline response is not the same even though their behavior was.

Help Between Siblings

Help Between Siblings

It is fine to ask for and expect help between siblings. What you want to avoid is one child feeling like the other is their job or responsibility. There are subtle shifts in language and positive discipline techniques that can be helpful in walking this fine line.
  • Give Choices – So their sibling doesn’t feel like a chore, offer children choices about how they would like to help and what they would like to do. If you need help getting the bath ready, ask if they would like to get the towels or start the water.
  • Talk About Caregiving in Both Directions – Rather than saying, “you are the big brother. It is your job to keep him safe.” Say, “we are a family. In a family we will all work to keep each other safe.”
  • Give Descriptive Praise When They are Helpful – When the hold a siblings hand crossing the parking lot, say, “wow, look at you holding your brother’s hand. You are helping to keep each other safe!” When they help pick other’s pajamas, say, “you got his pajamas ready. That helps everyone getting ready for bed!”
  • Avoid Competition, Encourage Cooperation – Instead of having them race to beat each other getting dressed, challenge them to work together to beat the clock.



Younger Sibling Woes

Dear Dr. Rene,
What do I say when my younger child wants something my older child has or wants to do something my older child is doing, but can’t. How do I nicely say, “you are not old enough or big enough?” I particularly don’t like saying this because, as the baby of the family myself, I remember resenting that as a kid. Is there a better or nicer way to explain this to a younger sibling?
Sincerely, Sarah
Mother of Two

Dear Sarah,
I know this can be tough. The first thing I would give is empathy. You might start by saying something like, “I know you really want that,” or “I know that looks like so much fun. It’s frustrating he has that and you don’t.” Empathy and validating a child’s feelings goes a long way towards settling them down. They can feel that you at least understand their position.

Once you’ve connected, you can then be more matter of fact and share the limit. It is fine to explain, “he has that because he is seven years old. When you are seven, you can have one too.” Your younger child may still be upset and may not seem to understand, but it is okay to have the limit.

Following this you might give them some choices about what else they can do or find a variation of the activity that they could manage.
Dr. Rene

Sibling Concerns

Dear Dr. Rene,
My family has a history of siblings not getting along. I was never close to my sister growing up. My mom and dad are practically estranged from their siblings. My sons are only four years old and 14 months old. Is there anything I can do now and in the next few years to maximize the odds they will become life long friends?
Thank you,
Hope, Mother of Two

Dear Hope,
First thing to do is be sure you’ve let go of the expectation that the boys won’t be friends. Expect they will enjoy each other and find ways to build a positive relationship over time. Our expectations may help to shape the outcome.

That said, avoid putting pressure on the specific relationship. There is an idea that insisting on good feeling between children leads to bad. If you find yourself saying, “you will love your brother. He is supposed to be your best friend in life!” it is likely bottling negative emotions which may pile up and work against the relationship. It is a better practice to allow for and recognize the negative emotions. When children feel heard, they can let go of the fight and hopefully move forward.

Ideally, you are giving opportunity and encouragement for togetherness without pressure. Think of ways they can be together like sharing a room or work together like cooking without force. There is more detail about these suggestions and many others in Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish. This is a fantastic parenting book and would be a good next step.
Dr. Rene

Sibling Peace & Holidays

little boy and girl walk in autumn forest

Tips for Managing Siblings, Cousins and Friends over the Holidays

If your house is anything like our house over the holidays, there are children coming and going at all times and many may overstay their initial warm and friendly welcome. Children stuck in the house together who have been used to the elbow room of school and regular schedules can be a lot to handle on top of the rush of the holidays.

  • Plan for the downtime – A few years ago there was a huge snowstorm that kept the girls and I in the house for five straight snowdays. By the end of the first day, I wised up. I made a list of every possible activity that was fun and available in our house. This included regular things like play with groovy girls but also much bigger things like make a pillow fort, take a bubble bath and bake cookies from scratch. It was a long list that we almost exhausted by the end of the week.
  • Make them busy – Contribution is a practice in positive discipline that follows the idea that; children who are engaged with positive behaviors have little time for negative behaviors. This proactive technique is simple – make them busy. Children who are buttering rolls and drawing placemats aren’t resisting the table and argueing about what’s for dinner. Children who are picking towels, bath toys and testing the water temperature and level aren’t running amok and avoiding the bath.
  • Pit them in cooperative efforts – All the better if the efforts are done together. See if they can both clean the playroom to beat the clock, challenge them both to set the table before the end of the next song on the radio.
  • Have a back-up plan or two – Set aside a few fun activities that will work well in a crunch. When kids start bickering and can’t seem to get back in a friendly groove, be ready to pull out Hallabaloo, the cake decorating kit and a cupcake mix, Play-Doh with all the supplies, big coloring books with crayons for all, the bounce house or a good video that all might enjoy.
  • Divide and conquer – Two kids are more likely to get along easily than six. If you are overwhelmed by the numbers then divide them. Two or three kids in each area or at each activity is plenty.
  • Take a walk – When all else fails, bundle them up and take them out.