My Kid Is a Total Tattletale and It Bugs the Hell Out of Me

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At 4 years old, my daughter has perfected the art of tattling. At least once a day (and often much more than that) she tells on someone.

Emma won’t share her toys.

Mason got in trouble at school.

Sophie ate her sweet first at lunch.

In short, my kid is a snitch. And nothing I say or do seems to dissuade her from fully embracing that title.

The worst of it happens when we’re having play dates with friends. My daughter has learned that coming to me over sharing infractions gets her nowhere — I tell her to find other toys to play with, or to work it out with her friends. So lately, she’s taken to going to their parents instead. Because she’s figured out that telling a child’s parent they aren’t playing nicely produces better results.

(Hey, at least she’s got a strategy.)

I can’t even count how many times I tell my little girl to stop being a tattletale in any given week. I want her to figure out how to manage social relationships on her own, without interference. And perhaps more importantly, I don’t want her to be the kind of kid who enjoys getting others in trouble.

But then comes the dilemma: Because at the same time I’m telling my daughter not to tattle, I’m also constantly telling her that she needs to come to me if she’s ever in danger or if anyone ever tries to hurt or touch her.

It’s a conversation we’ve started to have nightly.

“What do you do if someone tries to touch your privates?” I ask.

“Don’t touch my privates!” she’s quick to shout back. “I’ll tell my mommy!”

And then, she promises me she will.

“Good,” I remind her. “You can always talk to Mommy. I’m here to keep you safe. So don’t ever forget to tell Mommy if anything like that ever happens.”

And in those words, I see the contradiction. I go through my days telling my daughter not to tattle, but then reverse course and tell her she absolutely should.

Talk about mixed messages.

Yes, in a perfect world, she would be able to recognize the difference between these circumstances. A friend not sharing a toy probably isn’t a tell-able offense. But molestation absolutely should be. The problem is, she’s 4. I’m willing to bet most kids her age really don’t recognize those distinctions. And I’ve grown more than a little concerned that my constant admonishing of her tattling could, in fact, convince her that she should never tell me. About anything.

And that is absolutely not the message I want to send.

“Tattling is a very common behavior in early childhood,” explains Danielle Rannazzisi, a child psychologist who practices in New York. “So much so that I often include a lesson on tattling in any social skills group I run at the elementary school level.”

She continues:

“Children tattle for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s for attention, sometimes it’s because they don’t have the social-emotional skills necessary to solve the problem they’re facing on their own, and sometimes they are just letting you know that they understand the difference between good and bad behavior and they want to see the bad behavior punished immediately so that all is right in their world again.”

So how do you help them distinguish between “tattling” and “telling?” Dr. Rannazzisi summed it up pretty simply:

“The purpose of tattling is to get someone INTO trouble, whereas the purpose of telling is to help get or keep someone OUT of trouble. One book that I’ve used with success is A Bad Case of Tattle Tongue by Julia Cook. It does a nice job of emphasizing that, if danger is involved and someone is at risk of being hurt, you need to tell a trusted adult immediately. However, if danger is not a concern, it helps children determine their next course of action.”

(BRB, going to add that book to my Amazon cart immediately … )

As for how parents like me should respond?

“When a child approaches an adult to tattle,” Dr. Rannazzisi explains, “the adult can ask whether someone is hurt or in danger. If safety isn’t at stake, punishing the child being tattled on will only reward the tattler and encourage him/her to keep tattling.”

She suggested investing in a “Tattle Turtle” instead, which is basically a toy turtle you designate for moments when your child feels the need to tattle, and safety isn’t a concern.

Dr. Rannazzisi also had one more piece of advice that I’ll be keeping in mind:

“You may want to make sure that your child has developed the social skills necessary to handle the situations she is tattling about. Sometimes kids want you to intervene and solve the problem for them, but other times they are just looking for guidance on how to handle the situation on their own. If a child seems unsure of what to do, you may need to give him or her the words to say, or model the appropriate behavior a few times before they feel confident handling the situation on their own.”

I’m probably a little too guilty of admonishing the tattling and telling my daughter to work issues out on her own, without then providing her the guidance in how to do that. So I’m going to work harder on not stepping in, but stepping up when it comes to helping her find solutions that work.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue hammering home the point that she should always come to me if she or anyone else is in danger. All the while hoping neither of us will ever find ourselves in a situation where she has to make that distinction.

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