Why Kids Tattle and What to Do About It


"She stuck her tongue out at me for no reason!" "He grabbed my lightsaber!" "She took a lollipop without asking!" Does your child constantly snitch on their siblings and pals? The truth is that 4- and 5-year-olds love to tell on people. 

Tattling is not totally a bad thing (it's proof that your kid can distinguish between right and wrong) but it tends to get annoying. Also, kids often rat each other out for all the wrong reasons—to worm their way into their parents' favor, for example, or for the naughty thrill of getting someone into trouble. 

We've got the lowdown on when your child is likely to tattle, and how you can get them to stop with a few simple steps.

An image of a mom talking with her daughter.

Why Do Kids Tattle?

"There are a lot of reasons why little kids might tattle," says Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., a child psychologist and parenting expert. Here are some of the most common.

They're learning about rules. Young kids tend to be very literal, as their cognitive development can't recognize abstract reasoning yet, Dr. Balter says. When they develop a stronger sense of fairness, around age 5 or 6, they begin internalizing the importance of rules. It feels personal when other kids abide by a different set of rules. "Kids this age are extremely aware of rules and get very concerned when others aren't following them," explains Nathan Blum, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

They want attention or status. A child who is constantly pointing out the bad behavior of other children at playdates or school may simply be seeking attention and praise for their own actions, says Carl Chenkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware. If they're feeling left out or abandoned, they may tell on someone to build up their own status or to make other kids look bad.

They're seeking power. "At this age, children begin asserting themselves by experimenting with power and control in relationships," says Toni Schutta, a psychologist in St. Paul. "Tattling is a way for kids to see if they can dominate. Can I get a rise out of Mom or Dad? Can I get my sister in trouble? Will I look like the angel in comparison? Can I push people's buttons?" A tattler seeking power may likely have a strong-willed Type A personality and may want to put someone else in line. 

They don't know how to solve conflicts. Kids this age don't know how to deal with peers who act aggressively or won't listen to them, so they often expect a parent to run interference, says Susan Isaacs Kohl, author of The Best Things Parents Do.

It's about revenge. Most tattles are generally harmless, but occasionally a tattle can have a sinister root. "Sometimes it's not only about raising status, but the child wants to hurt the other person," Dr. Balter says. "A good way to get back at a kid who has hurt your feelings is to say something negative about them, to get them in trouble."

How to Deal with Tattling

Start by having a conversation with your child about the difference between tattling and telling. Explain that tattling is when you're trying to get someone in trouble, while telling is informing an adult when someone could get hurt or something might get broken. When your child comes to you with a complaint, ask them to consider whether this seems like telling or tattling. Then try the following techniques.

Resist a reprimand.

It's important not to shame your child (even if their sibling calls them a tattletale). Letting them know their concerns have been heard will build their trust in adults and prevent them from feeling they need to keep secrets. Thank them for alerting you, and reinforce that telling is a good thing to do. While you may not want your child to get in the habit of tattling, it's important that they know when to talk to an adult.

Brainstorm other solutions

For example, if a friend calls them a mean name, your child can say, in their I-mean-business voice, "Don't say that to me. That's not nice." Then they should decide whether they want to continue playing with that friend or go color with another classmate. According to Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "This sends your child the message that he has skills and choices, and that he can gradually learn ways to solve problems independently."

Point out tattling.

If you catch another kid tattling, use the opportunity as a teaching moment. "Bring the action to her attention, and ask what she thinks about what the kid is doing. Does she understand that what the child is doing is tattling, and why it's wrong?" Dr. Balter says. Take time to talk about what the other child could have done instead of tattling (ignore it, walk away, and so on).

Talk about fairness and justice.

"Kids are so literal, and sometimes their tattling is about making the other kid look bad to get that sense of justice," Dr. Balter explains. When talking to your child, say something like, "Sometimes people don't follow the rules the way they should. I know it's upsetting to you because you are trying to do the right thing." Tell your child that they can't change the way other children behave, but that the most important thing is always keep their own actions fair and just.

Explain your expectations.

Explain that, although tattling on small actions is bad, it's important to speak up if something appears dangerous. You wouldn't want your child complaining every time Suzie steals a crayon from them, but you would need your child to mention if Suzie is hitting someone. 

In Social Rules for Kids, author and speech-language pathologist Susan Diamond, M.A., suggests one way to guide kids on what to say when something could be dangerous: Explain to your child that they could say "I tell the teacher when…I feel threatened, scared, nervous, or hurt by a student or group of students." For the opposite approach, kids should practice saying, "I do not tell the teacher when…a student is not right, calls me a name, calls someone else a name, taps a pencil." Then help kids focus on what they should do instead, like "relax, focus on my work, ignore, [and so on]," Diamond advises.

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