You may recall the childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But names do hurt. And they are often spoken in the form of tattle tales. Typically offered as a way of getting a sibling or classmate into trouble, tattle tales are generally seen in a negative frame.
So what inspires a child to tell tales? Regardless of whether the tale is being shared with a parent or teacher, the child who is tattling is typically doing so as a way of getting the other person into trouble, or as a way of attempting to score brownie points with the adult. Unfortunately for the tattler, who at first may be proud or excited to be able to relate the story, the longterm results are often not in his or her favour. Shared too often and perceived as a way to get the subject of the story into trouble, the tattler may earn the reputation of being an instigator.
My thinking is that rather than being angry at the tattler, show compassion and understanding as to why this may be happening – especially if it’s a regular occurrence.
For example, if you suspect that your child may be spinning a tale, ask: “are you sharing this to get your friend/ sibling in trouble or out of trouble?” At first this may take the wind out of the tattler’s sails. They likely wouldn’t anticipate this response. Depending on the age of the child, you may even have to explain your question. You might give an example such as: “When you see another child playing with matches and you’re worried that he might light a fi re and hurt someone or something, then telling me is a good way of keeping him and others safe and out of trouble. However, when you see someone sneak a piece of candy in his mouth even though the rules are no candy, then you might be telling me about this just to get him into trouble.”
The tricky part is trying to explain why it might be okay for the tattler to ignore the child who has broken the rule when the child may genuinely believe that he is only trying to help you implement and maintain it. In addition, many children live “by the book” so to speak, and feel that it is unfair when their peers and siblings don’t.
My advice is to let the tattling child know that although it is not okay for anyone to break rules, and while you appreciate that he or she wants to help you “catch” anyone that’s not upholding them, that it is your responsibility as an adult to figure out how to help others work with you. By sharing this, you are helping the child realize that it is not their role to act as your spy or to be on your side against a classmate or sibling, for example.
Also, with older children you may want to help them learn that there is a range of importance. There’s a difference between someone breaking a rule that can lead to a potentially life-threatening situation versus a lesser consequence. For example, seeing a child sneak a candy might not be a reportable offence, whereas seeing someone carrying a dangerous weapon in his bag would.
This is indeed a delicate topic and needs to be handled sensitively – especially if you want to nip tattle tales in the bud and help educate the tattler on the etiquette of sharing information about others.
Most preschoolers, especially younger ones who are more into parallel play than socializing or being aware of others, will not tattle as much as when they are older. The exception may be when older siblings have taught them how. Rather than trying to help them understand the motives for their behaviour, simply say “thanks for telling me about this. I will take care of it.”
At this stage, most children are able to reflect on their motives, consider the consequences and evaluate whether they should share information about others. Some purposely don't share information about their peers for fear of retaliation but are quick to report to parents when siblings are not towing the line or following rules. If this has become a perpetual problem, consider what the motives might be. Is your child working hard at attaining or maintaining the “good” child role? How can you stop this? Again, let your child know that as much as you appreciate his or her help, you’d rather that he not report on his siblings’ behaviour.
Tattling may take the form of gossip among teens, who tend to talk about one another with each other, rather than with adults. It’s much less likely for teens to report a peer’s bad behaviour to a person in a position of authority. Those who do are typically shunned because they are perceived as wanting to get into the adult’s good books. This is different at home though, as teens are just as likely to still want to get siblings into trouble. Again, help teens reflect on the motives for their behaviour and set clear limits so that they don't gossip at school or align themselves with you and against siblings at home.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.