How to Deal With and Stop Preschool Tattles

Boy whispering into girl's ear
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Aside from age, there are many wonderful milestones that signify that a child has become a preschooler. She's potty trained. He can dress himself. She can ride a bike with training wheels. He can count to 10. Then there are the other milestones — the ones that aren't so wonderful.

Ask any parent of a preschooler and the chances are good that tattling tops the list. Dealing with a tattletale is never fun, but there are ways to help your little one change her behavior.

From a sibling who jumps on the couch to a friend who isn't cleaning up, no one is safe from a preschooler who feels he's been wronged. The silver lining is that tattling can have a positive side.

First off, it's normal. For a 3-, 4-, or 5-year old, there are no shades of gray, only black and white. When a preschooler tattles on a friend or a sibling, he's demonstrating his moral compass. He is showing that he knows the rules and the difference between right and wrong.

As annoying as tattling can be, one milestone that kids this age haven't reached yet is conflict resolution, so telling on a friend is the alternative. There are ways to deal with a tattletale and help your child learn to resolve conflicts on her own.

What Is Your Tattletale Tattling About?

Before you scold your child for tattling, make sure you know what exactly is going on. Children this age don't have a good barometer for judging what is harmful ("She's playing with the oven") to what is simply just irritating them ("He took my doll").

You may tell your little one it's okay to tell you when someone is doing something dangerous, but a child this age doesn't necessarily know the difference. If it turns out that the tattle stops someone from hurting themselves, be sure to praise your child so they know they did the right thing. It's important that your preschooler knows that he can come to you with a real problem and you won't dismiss it.

Sometimes children tattle because they are truly confused. When another child behaves aggressively toward them, like taking a toy out of their hands, many preschoolers aren't sure what to do, so they look to a parent for help. The best way to respond is to empower her.

Talk about what she can do next, like asking for the toy back, suggesting she and her playmate take turns. If the situation keeps recurring, not playing with the other child altogether.

By giving your child a script with variations and different strategies they'll learn how to problem solve on their own, which is another big milestone for preschoolers.

Tattletale Motives

However, some tattling has less-than-honorable motives. Like an adult selling someone out at work, many preschoolers tattle for attention, to exert power or to gain favor from an authority figure, whether it's a teacher or parent. Again, take stock of the situation.

Unless someone is about to get hurt, determine if you really want to get involved. If you punish the other child, you are reinforcing the tattle taler's behavior, teaching him that by coming to you, he gets what he wants — your attention and the other child in trouble.

The danger in disciplining the other child is that if the tattler is exaggerating about what happened (which is very common at this age) you may unfairly punish him.

Exercising a Moral Compass — and No One Is Happy About It

Preschoolers are very aware of rules and don't like it when others don't follow, particularly if they are doing the right thing. In this case, "She climbed up the slide, not the ladder." remind your child that unless there is a danger, you don't need to know about it.

Talk about how it isn't his job to be the boss of the other kids and that he should keep doing his own thing the right way. Reinforce his positive behavior — "I like it when you use the slide the correct way."

The tattling phase doesn't last forever, only about a year or so. Once your child learns that life isn't completely cut and dry, they'll develop ways to deal with situations they aren't happy with. In the meantime, keep encouraging your child to work out squabbles on his own and teaching him to tell others how he feels.

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