I think every parent has asked this question at one time or another. We want our kids to feel comfortable telling us when they have a problem, and we want them to come to us for help, but somehow we also feel like there’s something inherently wrong with tattling. So the question is, “Is tattling bad?”
When we talk about tattling, most people think of it as telling on someone. “He hit me!” But we want to be able to help when there’s a problem, so how can our kids tell us what’s happening without being a tattletale?
It’s really an issue of motive. If the child’s goal is to get the other person in trouble, it’s tattling. If the child’s motive is to get help, it’s telling.
The child’s first step should be to talk directly to the other child. Love covers a multitude of sins, and out of a love for one another, our kids should want to help each other stay out of trouble. If one kid sees another one breaking a rule, instead of running to an adult to get the kid in trouble, the first child should warn the other kid to prevent them from making a mistake. If the offending child corrects his behavior, there’s no need to tell an adult.
The exception to this is if there’s danger involved. If one child is doing something potentially dangerous, the other kid should get help right away.
If one child does something that upsets or even hurts another kid, the offended person should first vocalize her feelings. “Ouch! You hurt me.” The offender should immediately apologize and take any necessary corrective steps. If that doesn’t happen, the child who has been hurt should find an adult and get help.
Tattling vs. Telling
Just as the motive of tattling is to get someone in trouble, the motive of telling is to get help, and that’s exactly how it should be phrased.
There’s a big difference between, “He hurt me!” and “Mom, Johnny hurt me. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. I need your help.”
“I need your help!” are Power Words
“I need your help” are the power words here. If your daughter is at a playdate and her friend refuses to share, she should first try to talk directly to her friend. But if her friend still won’t share, she should be empowered to go to the child’s mom and say, “Mrs. Smith, Jane won’t share with me. I need your help.”
Again, the difference between tattling and asking for help is in the goal. If the goal is to get the other person in trouble, you’re tattling. Don’t allow tattling. Instead, let your kids know that you are there if they need your help. That goes back to teaching them to advocate for themselves. “Mommy, I need your help.”
How to Teach Tattling vs. Telling
Role playing is key to teaching this concept, especially with younger kids. On the way to a playdate, spend the entire car trip talking about potential situations and role playing different ways your kids can handle them. Kids need us to give them the words and the tone to use in sticky situations.
Say, “So, Sally, what would you do if Jane refuses to share with you today?”
Remind her that the first step is to confront her friend directly. Help her practice using the right words and the right tone. “Jane, I’m so glad that you invited me here today. I’d like to play with the baby doll too. Would you please share with me?”
Then ask her what she’ll do if Jane refuses. Remind her NOT to say, “I’m telling your mom!” Instead, coach Sally to quietly get up and walk out of the room and go find Jane’s mom.
When she finds her say, ““Mrs. Smith, Jane won’t share with me. I need your help.”
On a regular basis, have conversations about what the word “motive” means. Talk about the motive behind tattling and the motive behind telling.
Play “games” in the car or when you’re making dinner or folding laundry where you give them a scenario and have them decided whether it’s an example of tattling or telling.
If you’ve got readers in your house, spend a craft day making a cute sign that says “Tattling = Getting Someone In Trouble. Telling = Getting Help.” Put the sign up in a common area to remind kids about the difference.
Then, when you catch your kids tattling, ask them, “What’s your motive? Did you remind your brother that he’s not supposed to go outside without shoes on before coming to tell me? Are you trying to get him in trouble?”
On the flip side, when you catch your kids telling, praise them. “Good job! You came to me to get help and not to get your brother in trouble. You were telling and not tattling.”
Talk about what constitutes a dangerous situation and remind kids that they have to get help whenever there’s danger involved. Give them examples of things that would require immediate help (playing with fire, jumping off high places, etc.) and things that don’t require immediate help (leaving soap on the dishes, making a mess, etc.).
If we take a proactive approach, our kids will become great at checking their motives, and they’ll probably begin to teach their friends the difference tattling and telling. Remember, the choices we make as parents can affect a whole community!