What's the real problem with tattletaling?

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Answered by: Carol, An Expert in the Behavioral Psychology Category
Nobody likes a tattletale. Especially not the person being snitched on. My younger son, age 8, hasn't caught on to this yet, and I frequently hear him say things like, "Mommy, Cole's not wearing his seat belt the right way," or "Mommy, Cole's not eating his vegetables." Cole, age 10, moans but seldom retaliates by snitching. Unlike his little brother, he has learned to balance telling the truth, which is what we as parents preach, with the equally important but less-often-taught lesson called minding one's own business.

Why do kids tattletale? In some cases, the child may think he is simply telling a fact and thus is doing nothing wrong. Probably a lesson in manners and minding one's business is overdue. In my son's case, he seems to be motivated by wanting to be recognized as the better son. He's competing with his older brother, after all, in almost every aspect of his life: achievements at school, athletic ability, quantity of toys, and how often he gets praised or reprimanded at home. Kids who snitch on their friends may be subconsciously operating under this same competitive drive. I try to diffuse the competitive atmosphere at home by highlighting to my son what a fun, warm-hearted and patient older brother he has.

Obviously, as parents we will have to teach our kids not to actively get other people into trouble (if they want friends) and to mind their own business (unless of course someone is getting hurt). But the real problem with tattletaling is that in some situations, the tattletale is not learning to tackle his own problems. Case in point: If my son came running to me, crying, "Cole slapped me on the butt really hard!", and I then told Cole to stop doing that, my son would be learning that when someone does something he doesn't like, all he has to do is tell Mommy and she will take care of the problem for him.

I would serve my son better if I asked him, "Why are you telling me? What are you going to do about it?" and helped him negotiate appropriate action. Retribution would be verbal, not physical, and would consist of confronting Cole about how the butt-slapping makes him feel and telling Cole to pick on someone his own size. Learning to handle their own problems is what all parents wish for their children, and tattletaling may provide the perfect forum for teaching that.

Not all tattletaling is serious. Sometimes, the circumstances even invite laughter: "Mommy, Cole's picking his nose!" Most kids my younger son's age haven't developed the maturity to understand manners or propriety. However, in those cases where tattletaling is a way of asking for a grown-up's help with a problem--for example, when a classmate calls your kid a bad name--it's a good idea to talk to your child about how to deal with this problem should it happen again and give him the confidence and social tools to successfully navigate similar situations in the future. The real problem with tattletaling is when we as parents feel the need to jump in and rescue our children, which is only a short-term solution.

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