Photo credit: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot / 360/Getty Images
No one likes a tattle tale. Have you ever found yourself uttering those words when you've hit your limit of reports of injustice coming in from the little ones? You're not alone. Kids between the ages of 5-10 are prone to tattling, particularly on siblings, but probably not for the reasons you think. It's natural to assume that your little reporter comes running to you every time something goes awry in his social life because he isn't assertive enough to stick up for himself. Between siblings, where some rivalry naturally exists, it can seem like the perceived "underdog" in the situation is always looking for backup. You might even label him a "whiner" (in the back of your mind), thinking that he lacks social skills.
The truth is that many kids tattle because they have a strong sense of justice. They understand right from wrong in very black and white terms, and they feel an intense need to report on the wrong. It is around age 5 that kids begin to understand that rules exist and rules need to be followed, but they can't distinguish between minor rule breaking and rule breaking that should be reported to an adult. They tend to report all infractions, big and small, just in case.
While it is tempting to ignore the tattling in an effort to extinguish it, that can actually inflame the situation and leave kids feeling alone and confused. You have, in fact, spent a fair amount of time teaching your child right from wrong. To suddenly ignore requests for help about this very issue can leave a kid feeling defeated. Chances are you vent your feelings to a friend or family member when you need someone to listen. Sometimes kids just need a safe space to vent and a little bit of empathy to pick themselves up and try again.
Consider the cause
Is the child tattling because something seems unfair or a fundamental house rule has been broken? Does a certain sibling regularly make that child feel like he just can't compete? Does the child struggle with social interaction skills and therefore doesn't quite know how to navigate the social nuances that occur on the playground?
The first step toward decreasing tattling in your home is understanding the motivation behind the tattling. Although the words that come out of your child's mouth during a tattling episode might sound whiny in nature, what your child is actually saying is this: I need help. Take the time to talk with your child about the specific incident to uncover important clues to the root of the behavior.
Note: It's always important to consider all possible factors. Is it excessively hot? Time to eat? Does your child lack sufficient sleep? Make a note of the time of day, what's happening and any other environmental factors at play if you have a frequent tattler on your hands. Patterns of behavior serve as a road map to improvement. When you find the obstacles, you can learn how to adjust the route so that your child makes it to his final destination.
Most kids under the age of 8 simply don't have the ability to determine what needs to be told and what can fly under the parental radar. Everything feels urgent to them when it comes to rule breaking. They need guidance.
Acknowledge your child's feelings when he comes to you with concerns about a sibling or peer. Talk about the specifics of the scenario and how your child felt in the moment. Listen to his concerns and ask follow-up questions. Once your child has vented his feelings, give him simple and age appropriate guidelines about when to tell and when not to tell. For example, if the situation resolved itself or kids were able to problem solve independently, point out that tattling wasn't necessary in that situation.
Be sure to teach your child the difference between expressing emotions and tattling on others. Your child should always feel comfortable expressing emotions to a parent when under stress.
Kids need to learn how to share their concerns with one another and problem solve independently, and they will. But it takes practice. You can't just expect kids to know how to mediate problems between peers — you have to teach them.
Try acting as a mediator when problems arise between kids. Ask leading questions to guide them toward solutions and cue them to express their feelings and perceptions about the scenario. Suggest possible solutions. When we remain calm, model solutions and ask kids questions to get them thinking about the bigger picture (instead of just the infractions of their peers), we teach kids how to solve problems independently. In time, this translates to less tattling.