By Talya Ressel
A very common occurrence among children is the ongoing behaviours of tattling. While this can be very frustrating, it is also a very natural part of their development and can be a great opportunity to enhance children’s social interaction and awareness.
Why do children tattle?
This is a developmentally appropriate and typical behaviour for children as they are developing their understanding of right and wrong, positions of power and other aspects related to how we socially and morally engage. They are learning social skills and often don’t know how to handle a problem on their own.
There are several different reasons why children may tattle. For some children it may be an attempt to get attention or they may hope that the information they provide may somehow prove useful, and they will be rewarded. Other times, they are looking to get someone in trouble so they can again find superiority in “I told you so”. Some children may attempt to over-control situations when they feel out of control in other areas and some may experience a more heighten sense of persecution. And many tattle because of immaturity in their development. As they grow, children are trying to figure out the difference between right and wrong and part of how they learn this is by questioning everything.
At a preschool level, children have the belief that adults can control and fix everything like magic. They can also be used to adults coming in and fixing thing, rather than attempting to problem solve on their own. A child’s world is often black and white, dominated by concrete thinking. When children see someone break a rule that they just learned, they want that rule enforced – it is difficult for them to understand why you would ignore the fact that someone is breaking your rule, especially if they were in trouble for breaking that rule in the past. Sometimes they only want you to confirm their assumption that the thing they are tattling about was wrong or a bad thing to do or say as opposed to enforcing punishment.
Considering a child’s path of growth, tattling can be seen as a positive social and emotional developmental indicator in children. They have matured beyond the point of handling conflict through tears, hitting and/or grabbing. They are managing some degree of self control and are displaying the ability to stop and think rather than immediately react. However, they have not fully developed their problem solving skills, and as such, require the assistance of adults. If we respond with irritation or rejection or even punishment, children may learn not to trust when they are unsure what to do or be fearful of seeking guidance. Consider these early tattles as opportunities to help teach children how to problem-solve and to figure out what situations they might be able to handle on their own, while reassuring them that you are there to help them out.
What to do when a child tattles?
There is no way to prevent tattling completely – it does serve a function. However it is also not about allowing tattling to go on incessantly but rather about redirecting and reinforcing other behaviours.
As adults, we play a part in tattling behaviours in both managing and escalating the behaviour. Before putting steps in place to address tattling, we need to consider the environment we have created: what is our reaction to tattling –do we reward with attention, do we model appropriate behaviour (eg gossiping/commenting on others’ behaviours) and do we sometimes choose to ignore behaviours because we are too busy/tired to deal with it. With children’s concrete thinking and need for boundaries, if you set a rule and the children are aware of it, you have to be consistent in consequences every time. Responding inconsistently will heightens a child’s anxiety and can sometimes result in increased tattling.
Children are not born with social skills, and we cannot simply ‘tell’ – rather we need to teach them through explanations, instructions, role modelling and practice. Part of that involves ensuring children know that when a situation is urgent or if they or someone else is in distress, they must approach adults for assistance immediately. Once that understanding is gained, then we can offer alternative options for tattling. One useful technique is teaching ‘The Double D” rule: Is it dangerous (people) or destructive (property)? This helps children start to understand the difference between appropriately telling and tattling.
Role plays and games are also very useful in helping children learn what to do instead of tattling or when they should come tell you immediately. By developing and encouraging children’s’ abilities to communicate their feelings, this will also assist with tattling. It will allow children to express themselves and to attempt to problem-solve among themselves. These skills will take time and practise to develop. Some suggestions for role plays around these skills include:
When you….., I feel……because……..
I don’t like it when you…… It makes me feel…… Please can you……
For children who seem to thrive on the extra attention from tattling, it may be helpful to notice the child at other times and provide needed feedback and compliments for appropriate, positive behaviours. For children, who seem to find tattling gives them a sense of power, give the child opportunities for leadership and focus on their strengths.
Another idea would be to establish a tattle box – either using a box, jar, envelope and some paper. If the situation is not urgent, you can encourage the child to write down or draw what they want to tell you and you will deal with it at a later stage. Often this can allow the child to feel that you have taken their concern seriously and they have had the opportunity to express themselves. This idea can also be done using an old telephone or a stuffed animal/doll.
Encourage family communication, with regular ‘meetings’. This will allow for a space where children can feel they can be heard. If tattling occurs, you can request that the child bring it to the meeting and this will encourage problem solving among themselves.
There is no magic solution, and some children may tattle more than others, and some may respond to different situations. There will be times that the tattling behaviour feel relentless, but it is a normal part of children’s development. We can use these behaviours to guide, teach, mediate and model positive and constructive social skills…..and remember, that like with all phases, ‘this too shall pass’.