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Even though your child's tattling may be annoying, it's also an opportunity to help her learn to resolve problems on her own and show her how to stand up for others. Here's what you need to know.
Why children tattle
Children may tattle to exert power, to boost self-esteem, or just to get attention. "Tattling allows a child to one-up another child, to gain favor in the eyes of her parent or teacher," says Jerry Wyckoff, a child psychologist in Prairie Village, Kansas, and the author of Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking.
Tattling also has a positive side: It can demonstrate your child's desire to show you that she understands rules and knows right from wrong. It can also alert you to a dangerous situation that needs your immediate attention.
Some kids tattle because they haven't developed the emotional and social skills necessary to solve problems on their own. And older children who are accustomed to watching out for younger ones may be more inclined to notice and report their behavior.
What to do about tattling
Check out the situation. Before you decide that your child is turning into a whiny tattletale, take stock of the situation. You don't want your child running to you with every little complaint, but he also needs to feel confident that he can ask for help when necessary. It helps to give him an idea of the sort of things you'd like him to tell you about.
As an adult, you know that "Dad, Sarah's playing with my cars" is a very different situation from "Dad, Sarah's playing in that person's car." But young kids can't always tell the difference. "It's hard for kids this age to make independent judgments about what's tattle-worthy and what isn't," says Wyckoff.
You might tell your youngster that it's okay to alert you when someone does something dangerous, but he may still have trouble differentiating dangerous from annoying. (Is jumping on the bed dangerous, for instance?) Let him know that it's fine to ask you if he's not sure about a situation.
When he comes to you in order to protect someone, praise him: "Thank you for looking out for your brother. That will help keep him safe." This way you avoid the sibling rivalry trap, focus on taking care of the child in need, and establish trust through communication.
Don't make the payoff. Of course, there are lots of situations where safety isn't at stake. In these cases, punishing the other child only rewards tattling. If you take the tattler's side, not only do you reinforce the behavior by helping her achieve what she wants (positive attention for her and negative attention for the other child), you also risk disciplining the other child unfairly if your youngster is exaggerating her playmate's infraction, which kids often do.
But if you stay out of it, your child soon learns that some battles are meant for her to handle and that she can be proud of herself when she resolves a problem on her own.
Raise the cost of tattling. Giving your child some work to do when he tattles puts the burden back on his shoulders. For example, when he comes running to you with news of his sibling's dastardly (but not dangerous) deed, you might tell him to draw a picture and leave it on the table so you can look at it later. Chances are, he'll decide that the time and effort just isn't worth it.
If what he wants is your attention, tell him you'll be happy to listen to anything he wants to tell you about himself – but not about his friend or sibling, unless they're in danger. If he consistently tries to get your attention this way, talk to him about positive ways to get your attention instead. Spending some one-on-one time together can also help.
Explore alternatives together. When she runs into a difficult situation, your youngster needs guidance on what to do instead of tattling. Tell her, "I can help you more if you calm down and tell me what happened."
Next, ask questions to help her explore her motivation for telling on someone else: "What's happening here? What's the problem? How can we solve it?" Then figure out an alternative strategy.
If a squabble over a toy has sent her running to you, ask if she can share, take turns, or play by herself for a while. Teach her to express her feelings to her friends and siblings, too. Have her practice asserting herself verbally by saying, "Stop it. Don't do that," or "I don't like it when you do that. I'm going to play with someone else."
The idea is to reassure her that she can handle things and then empower her with strategies to do it.
Go back to the bargaining table. Once you've heard the complaint, assessed the danger, and helped your child come up with potential solutions, send him back into the fray. You want your youngster to develop his own problem-solving abilities.
"Work it out" or some variation of this phrase is what Robin Harding, a mother of three in Devon, England, recalls telling her kids. "They wanted my attention, but they were driving me crazy. So that was my favorite phrase for a while," she says. "I'd listen, give a hug, and then say, 'Now that sounds like something you can sort out yourselves.' Or I'd give them a choice: 'I'm busy cooking dinner. You can sort it out or put it away till later.' After a while they'd just automatically do it."