Tattling, Telling, and Teaching Your Kids to Know the Difference

My psychology credentials might be a little sketchy, limited to a couple of classes I took and some books I read, but my Mommy-Cred is totally on the up and up.  Ten years of parenting under my belt and four kids spanning from 5-10 have taught me a thing or two about… well… a thing or two.

One concept that has always been a little fuzzy for me though, is the tattling versus telling issue.  I could TELL the difference between the two by whether or not my hair stood on end as a child came my direction with a slew of words spewing out of her mouth, but I always struggled with articulating to my kids how THEY could tell the difference and know whether their words were tattling or telling. 

Dear friends, I have an answer.  Maybe you already know this, but I have to tell you – it’s new to me!

A specific scenario that erupted in my home last night involved two children (whom shall remain nameless), a sink, and water.  Child #1 used a nasty tone of voice to point out to Child #2 that there was now water all over the kitchen window because that Child #2 was doing more playing in the sink than hand-washing.  Child #2 apparently did not correct the behavior quickly enough, so Child #1 turned towards me.  I could feel my hair begin to stand up on end. 

“MMMMOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM! (S)HE’S MAKING A MEEEEESSSSS!” Because, as you know, ‘mom’ and ‘mess’ both have more than one syllable.

Child #2 dries hands and backs away, lower lip trembling and defensive.  An argument ensues, and both children are ordered to their rooms.  Husband goes in after Child #2 to calm nerves and comfort. 

Tattling.  Telling.  What’s the difference and why should we care?

There is a big difference, and we should care because one can help prevent trouble while the other will only cause it – on the surface and even deeper.  Perpetual tattling on one child is a form of bullying and will negatively impact the child’s sense of self-worth and confidence.  Personally, I’ve had enough of it, and I have a strategy for putting an end to the tattling in my house once and for all. 

Child #2 let loose on Child #1 in the presence of the entire family, with a string of hateful words directed not at Child#1, but at the self.  That child internalized that he or she was a complete and utter failure and to blame for everything.  Now, there’s more going on here than just the tattling, yes.  However, the large amount of tattling that goes on in a house with four children under the age of ten is NOT helping this child’s sense of self-worth.

So, after a cooling off period, I talked with both children about the difference between tattling and telling and why one is okay and the other is not.  This is what I came up with:

  • Telling gets a person OUT of trouble
  • Tattling gets a person INTO trouble

Additionally, there are three other criteria that I use to determine whether or not an adult needs to know what is going on, and I can’t remember where I heard these, but they bear repeating:

I want the child to ask himself:  Is this person involved in an activity or about to be involved in an activity that will

  • hurt him or her self 
  • hurt someone else 
  • damage or destroy property

If the answer is YES to any of those questions, then an adult needs to hear about it right away and it will constitute “telling”.  If the answer is NO, then you’re probably looking at a tattling situation, in which case you should not worry because I have a strategy for dealing with that, too!

Quite often there are situations that merit adult involvement, but we can all do without the nails-on-a-chalkboard-tone that comes with tattling.  It is, after all, our responsibility as adults to guide our children as they grow.

When I spoke with my kids about this issue, I explained that if a situation arises that feels hurtful or unfair and cannot be resolved without an adult becoming involved, whichever child is offended or has had feelings hurt should come to an adult and say,

“I feel ___________ because ______________.”

This tells the adult that there needs to be some sort of intervention but prevents hair-raising tattling and adult frustration.  We discussed an example. 

“Mom, I feel sad because they won’t let me play the game.” 


“Mom, I’m upset because I’m sorting the laundry all alone.” 

I explained to them that those statements tell me that there is a problem without tattling.  It allows me to investigate the situation without bias (how many of us automatically side with the tattler only to find out that the tattler ‘started it’?), hear from everyone without anyone feeling defensive, and take action based on all of the information.  Usually a simple “What’s going on here” from an adult will bring all of the issues to light. 

But what about…

I know, this might not be perfect, and yes, it does take extra time.  We also have to teach this technique our kids.  We have to role-play until they GET IT.  I can promise you though, that the investment of time and teaching will be worth the sense of peace and calm that will prevail in the home.  It will also pay off when their relationships and spirits are healthy and not angry or resentful. 

Now.  A disclosure:  My kids are older and it’s still a work in progress in my house.  However, I have a plan, and that is half the battle. 

What’s your plan for dealing with tattling? 


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