Why Kids Tattle and What You Can Do About It

How to help your child learn telling vs. tattling

A little boy whispering in his dad's ear

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Tattling is a vexing but fairly common behavior in preschool and school-age kids. While we want our kids to tell the truth and share what is going on in their lives, tattling is not that. Tattling is telling just to get others in trouble.

Kids may tattle on classmates at school or on siblings or friends at home. They may even tell on a parent, teacher, or other grown-up.

Kids do need to speak up and tell an adult when someone is in danger or being hurt, such as when they witness physical or emotional bullying. This is why it's important for parents to teach kids the difference between telling and tattling. Knowing why kids tattle can help you discourage it while still allowing for open conversation.

What Is Tattling?

Tattling is the act of reporting on someone’s rule-breaking behavior or actions, usually to get that person in trouble and/or for attention. When a child is tattling, it may be apparent that they delight in sharing their news and hope the subject will be punished.

But if a child tells a parent or other grown-up about something that is hurting someone or could cause harm, that is not tattling. That is helping someone or preventing someone from getting hurt.

Kids need to understand when it's important to tell, such as if a friend is hurt or in danger. Likewise, parents need to learn to recognize when a child is tattling versus when they are trying to speak up about a troubling situation.

Why Kids Tattle

Kids can tattle for different reasons. School-age kids are learning more about rules and what it means to break them. They are developing morals, figuring out the difference between right and wrong, and very interested in what's fair and what isn't. So when they see someone doing something wrong, they may feel a compulsion to tell.

Children may also tattle because they want to get on a parent or teacher’s good side or because they think there may be a reward for not doing whatever their sibling or classmate is doing. They may also be motivated by jealousy or competition, such as between siblings. In those situations, a child may tattle to gain an edge over their brother or sister.

Young children may also lack the tools to negotiate and manage conflicts. A child who feels like their sibling is not being fair to them may want you to intervene every time. Encourage them to work out their issues on their own to develop their problem-solving skills while also showing them how to get along as loving siblings.

How to Discourage Tattling

One way to discourage tattling is to first consider why it is happening. If a child is having trouble with a sibling, for instance, you can teach them how to find other ways to solve conflicts.

If a child is telling on others to get attention, you can help them ask for attention in more effective ways. Also, help them understand how they might hurt people by tattling and steer them toward more constructive behavior.

Take the allure out of tattling by gently encouraging your child to think about the consequences of their actions. How they would feel if they did something, perhaps by accident or without meaning to break the rules, and someone told on them? Would they feel upset? Sad? Embarrassed? Betrayed? Would they feel good or bad?

This response helps promote empathy while also teaching your child why tattling can be upsetting or hurtful to others.

Another effective way to discourage tattling is by giving your child some tools to help them learn how to solve some problems on their own. If they're having a problem with a classmate who won’t share, you might role play ways to negotiate, take turns, and ask for what they need in an assertive, but not confrontational way.

If your child is fighting with a brother or sister who teases them or hurts their feelings, suggest that they ask politely but firmly for respect. Then, guide the siblings toward a positive relationship. Instead of stepping in each time your child tattles, guide your child toward figuring out how to work through conflicts independently before intervening.

If your child tells on a sibling or classmate and that person is punished for wrongdoing, it rewards the tattling behavior. Avoiding punishment when possible helps discourage tattling.

Finally, try to see the positive side of your child’s urge to be the monitor of rule-breakers. Knowing what others should and should not be doing means that your child is learning the rules too. Tattling is their way of saying that they know what’s right and what’s wrong.

When Kids Should Tell

There are times when children should absolutely tell an adult about something that’s going on. It's important to speak up when telling will help someone who’s being hurt, mistreated, or in danger, or if it will stop someone who is deliberately being destructive or hurtful.

Whether they are being bullied or they witness a bully picking on someone else, make sure your child knows what bullying is and feels empowered to ask for help putting a stop to it.

Teaching Tattling vs. Telling

Teach your child to think before telling and consider factors like whether the person they're about to tell on is doing something to harm someone else or themselves. They can also consider if the person did something wrong by accident or on purpose. Additionally, they can ponder whether telling will fix or help anything—or just embarrass or hurt the person they're telling on.

Ask your child to weigh whether they tried to fix the problem on their own before they came to you for help. And most of all, they should ask whether telling will help someone be safe or will only get them into trouble.

Be patient. It can often be very difficult for young children to distinguish between a situation that’s dangerous and one that isn’t. When they come to you, give them your attention and be understanding if they didn't read the situation correctly.

Allow room for mistakes and keep reinforcing the message that it’s important to be a kind and considerate person, and to always try to help, rather than cause hurt.

A Word From Verywell

It can be very frustrating if your child often tattles on others. However, with gentle instruction and redirection, kids can learn the difference between tattling and telling. Helping them develop the skills to resolve conflicts on their own and encouraging empathy for others can also reduce tattling.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.