We want children to know they can and should come to an adult when they are in trouble. But, we don’t want them to tattle. There is a fine line between these two situations. How can children learn which is which?
Children can learn the difference by asking themselves one question, “When you go tell an adult about what someone is doing, are you trying (and hoping) to get that person in trouble? If you are, it is tattling. If instead, you are trying to get help because you are afraid about something, it is not tattling. For example, when a child reports that Jonah is eating more candy than he is supposed to, the child is hoping to get Jonah in trouble. When reporting that Jonah is riding a bike in the street after being told that it is very dangerous, he is just getting help from an adult because he is scared for Jonah.
Don’t forget teenagers when thinking about tattling. They avoid being tattletales at all costs, but they are not always good at telling what is and what is not tattling. Adults need to help teens understand that there are things that need to be reported to adults. For example, when they hear about weapons at school or kids that plan to hurt themselves or others. This is not being a tattletale or a snitch. It is being a responsible person and looking out for their friends.
One way to talk to your children about tattling
Take turns asking whether situations are tattling or not. Examples: “What if Josie’s friend tells Josie’s mom that she is hitting her little brother? Would the friend be tattling?” “What if Lance runs to his babysitter to report that his sister is using bad words? Would Lance be tattling?” (Don’t make your child part of the situations you describe. He will have an easier time answering the question if it is not about him.)
After your child responds, tell him what you think. Examples: “Josie’s mom is glad to know about the hitting because she doesn’t want to see the brother get hurt. This is not tattling.” “Lance seems to be trying to get his sister in trouble. This is unnecessary tattletale behavior.”
Be sure your child has a chance to make up her situation and ask you whether it is tattling. Go two or three rounds. More examples will help your child learn what tattling is so she can avoid that behavior.
This is also an important conversation to have with a teenager. Ask your teen, “What makes a teenager a snitch or a tattletale?” Give examples of situations where teens should be telling adults about problems – which would not be tattling or snitching. For example, when kids are abusing alcohol, telling an adult is not being a snitch or tattletale. Make sure your child knows he can come to you, if he doesn’t want to talk about it at school.