Tattling And Telling Aren't The Same — How To Teach Kids The Difference

Helping Your Kids Understand The Critical Difference Between Tattling And Telling

Toddler whispering into mom’s ear in cafe
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Much has been discussed in the parenting zeitgeist about the pitfalls of “tattling.”

Indeed, teaching our kids the important difference between what “tattling” and “telling” are will help them navigate the intricacies of how to best communicate their needs and wants. It’ll also allow us, as parents, to lend the ear they need depending on the situation

When kids tell on each other, it’s an invitation to teach them about both sharing and what it means to be heard in the process. In our house, for instance, we have a posted television schedule: one child has the opportunity to choose a show one day and the next day, a different child. At least once a week, they get into a tattling war, which just adds more gray hair to my head. There is a very fine line between telling and tattling. 

One helpful article gives some solid tips on how to reframe tattling to encourage your kid to do more telling. When your kid says, “a boy at school stole my snack” — ask them about the situation, create a dialogue with them, hear how they think and how they perceived the situation. What were their feelings around a particular scenario? What did they do afterward? Who did they tell? What was that person’s response?

And then, do a few things. First, validate their feelings by saying you understand what they’ve shared; next, give them the words (i.e. reframe); and then remind them it’s always important to tell an adult what happened but tattling can create more problems than solutions.

The Child Mind Institute’s Jamie Howard, Ph.D., shares that rules are important in helping kids understand tattling versus telling. “So, until your child begins to develop empathy skills, guidance and rules are the most effective methods of keeping order. Tattling can become one of those rules, even if it’s a tricky one to master,” she says. “Rules work well with young children because their cognitive and moral development allows for mastering a set of simple instructions, and they are motivated to receive praise from adults for following them. For these reasons, kids usually believe it’s the right thing to do to tattle on kids who break the rules,” she added. 

We are our kids’ best teachers. Holly, a mom I spoke with, shared a very important distinction between tattling and telling. “I ask what their goal is. Even littles, with help, can start to think about that and get in touch with it. If the goal is ‘keeping people safe’ or some version of that, then yes, it’s important to tell. If the goal is that ‘it’s not fair they took an extra piece of candy then it’s more about ‘you’ than the other person, right? There’s that age in the development of deep outrage at injustice and unfairness.”

Safety, injustice, and unfairness are all things we must keep in mind as we try to simmer the tattling down and get to the importance of telling.

In the end, we hope to raise kids who will make the world a better place. We must also teach them about what it means to be safe, to be empathetic, to share — and you’ll know, just like potty training, when they are ready to leap from tattler to the storyteller.