Tattling: Why Children Tattle And What To Do About It

Undoubtedly, tattling is a behavior that is difficult for both parents and teachers to manage. In a perfect world, there would be a “cure” for tattling.  However; the reality is that children do tattle and there is not any one prescription that will work to curb all instances of tattling. There are definitely approaches that will certainly help create an understanding of tattling behaviors, support meeting children’s needs, and ultimately work to end the tattling all together.

Tattling is a challenging behavior and the general approach to these types of behaviors is to try to find the source. In the case of tattling, children tattle for many different reasons. By paying attention to the child’s developmental level, the child’s individual personality and temperament needs and the child’s social and cultural world, adults can understand the reasons why a child is tattling in the first place.  Once there is a clear understanding of the source of the tattling, an adult can determine the best way to support the child and ultimately end the behavior.


By looking at a child’s age and using general knowledge of development for that age, adults can more clearly understand why a child is tattling. For example, preschoolers often tattle because they have not yet developed the skills they need to solve problems.  Additionally, preschool children typically like rules and limits. As they start to explore rules and limits, they also try to understand how far the limits can go. Tattling is a direct result of the learning and skills the children have and have not acquired.  Interestingly enough, some children (getting into the personality factor described below) will not test the limits themselves, but want to see through others, how far the limits go. 


When adults pay attention to a child’s personality and individual temperament, a clearer picture of the tattling behavior also emerges. In general, different temperaments and personalities have different needs. For example, some children naturally like rules and order, while others naturally just need a lot of attention, and some children are more sensitive than others. In instances where a child needs more attention, he may use tattling as a way to gain that attention. Or if the child is more sensitive, he may need may actually be bothered by the events and instance he is tattling in regards to.


Finally, an awareness of a child’s family life, culture, and surroundings will certainly show why a child may be exhibiting tattling behaviors. The child’s family life including birth order, new siblings, and general stress level will affect the child’s needs. In the case of birth order, sometimes oldest children are used to helping younger siblings stay in line and therefore naturally pay attention more to the actions of others. Keep in mind that if there is a recent change or stressor, children generally are prone to need attention (and therefore may exhibit tattling behaviors).

In conclusion, the first step for teachers and parents in ending tattling is to find out the reason behind the tattling.  After a clearer picture is developed, it is important to try to meet a child’s needs before the tattling ensues.  For example, if a child tattles for attention, then a plan for meeting the attention needs will be required.

In addition to finding the source of the behavior, there are things adults can do to support children, meet their needs, and ultimately prevent tattling.  Here are some ideas:

  • Set clear rules (you cannot pick up the babies because that may hurt them)
  • Be clear on what you DO want to know about (tell me if someone is someone is picking up the baby because it involves getting hurt)
  • Teach problem solving skills (practice teaching the child to solve problems so that she does not always need your help)
  • Give children the language they need to get help without tattling (preschoolers may need the specific words like; ___ is chasing me on the playground.  I asked him to stop.  He didn’t listen and now I need your help)
  • Give positive attention.  All children need attention and will seek negative attention if they are not receiving it in positive ways

Overall, you want to create a culture where children’s needs are met.  So although tattling can be a nuisance, you should help the child that tattles to learn how to better handle his/her needs in ways that are successful.  The reality is that children do tattle.  Therefore, learning to manage tattling is both practical and useful. 


About the Author: Michelle Beedle is the Early Childhood Education Program Coordinator at the Lake Elmo/Woodbury, MN college campus.  Michelle teaches a variety of early childhood classes, manages student teachers who are on externship, and coordinates the Early Childhood Education degree program. Michelle has worked in the field of early childhood for nearly 20 years.  Michelle has a wide range of experience working with both children and adults. Michelle has a Bachelor’s degree is in Psychology from Marquette University and Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and teaching license from Concordia University - St. Paul.

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