Tattling. Ugh. The scourge of playground supervision and sometimes of the classroom, as well. It’s certainly a problem at home. What’s the best way to deal with this situation?
Well, it’s important to understand why children tattle. Young children, particularly those between the ages of 4 and 7, are cognizant of the rules. They will often feel that something “bad” will happen or an adult will get angry if the rules are not followed. They may also take it personally when another child breaks the rules. Of course, they also don’t recognize their own rule-breaking behavior. Children will also tattle to get attention from adults, or to get back at other children. Some children will also use tattling as a way to control others. “If you don’t play the game the way I want, I’m going to tell the teacher.”
We don’t want children to tattle. We DO want them to disclose issues around bullying and other types of inappropriate behavior. Efforts to stop tattling must balance with the message that telling adults about specific situations is OK.
A conversation that needs to happen often is defining the difference between tattling and telling. Since children are literal people, the definitions need to be concrete. What I like to say to children is the following:
“Tattling is something you do when you are mad at someone and want to get them into trouble. It’s not a good thing to do. You are tattling when you can fix the problem yourself, but go to an adult instead.
Telling is a good thing to do. Here is when you need to tell an adult: when someone gets hurt; when someone says inappropriate or mean things and will not stop; when someone tries to get someone to do something inappropriate; or when someone threatens someone else. Threatening someone means telling them that you will hurt them or that you will be mean to them unless they do what you want.”
At this point, you can give some examples of situations and ask the children whether going to an adult will be tattling or telling. Once you start this process, you will hear lots of questions about more scenarios as well. Each time, you can ask the child whether they think the answer would be tattling or telling. When they answer, ask them why, and check the answer to see if it meets the criteria above. You are helping to build critical thinking skills.
Here are some other tips as well:
• If a crowd comes up to you on the playground with something to say, listen to what it is. Even if you are sure it’s going to be a tattle, you need to show that you will give it a hearing. Remember that other children are watching. If you are unwilling to listen, it sends a signal to others that it’s better to keep quiet no matter what.
• If it’s a tattle, ask the child who spoke whether they think it’s tattling or telling. Chances are they will recognize it as tattling. Once they admit to tattling, ask how they might be able to fix the problem themselves. Once they walk away, others will follow.
• If a child has a legitimate tell, thank them for letting you know. Try to address the issue immediately. Once again you are reinforcing the behavior you want to encourage.
• Be patient. The difference between tattling and telling can be abstract for many young children. They will need practice and consistent response from you to help them figure it out. Even if you know they are tattling on purpose, you can view that situation as an opportunity to teach rather than an annoyance.
• If the tattling continues, try to figure out why. First of all, is your response consistent? Is it consistent for each child in your class or your family? If not, you may be confusing the tattler. Is the child upset about the rules? If this is the case, are they written down somewhere? Sometimes older children need to meet to determine how to use “optional rules” for a game like four-square. Write those down as well. Does the child consistently tattle on another child? Maybe those two children need to sit down with an adult and work out some bad feelings.
Tattling will never disappear entirely, but over time it can diminish. While working on reducing tattling, you can also build a culture of disclosure in your classroom and your home.