If you’ve ever spent any significant time around children, you know of their inclination to tattle on friends’ and siblings’ misdeeds. Some children even tattle on one parent to another. While it’s usually nothing more than an annoying behavior, the way you handle it can have a big impact.

It’s important first to define tattling. The term applies to behavior that is not significant, such as one child staring at another or someone whispering after they’ve been instructed to be quiet. It does not apply to any bullying behavior, including physical aggression or verbal taunting.

Tattling behaviors typically emerge around age three when children first begin to observe other kids’ behavior that they may not agree with. It becomes more common as children enter preschool and kindergarten and begins to taper off after first grade — especially as peer pressure builds to stop tattling.

Children tattle for a number of reasons. The most common is to get attention, especially when the child is competing for it, but children also tattle out of a desire for fairness, jealousy, power or revenge.

That’s why it’s important when you observe tattling to assess the child’s motivation. If you believe your child is tattling to get more attention, for example, take care to notice him at other times and compliment him for positive behaviors. If your child is tattling out of a sense of injustice, you may respond by enforcing rules more consistently.

The key to ending tattling behavior is not to provide any positive reinforcement for the behavior. If you tell your child not to tattle but still use the information the child gives you to correct another’s behavior, you’re sending a confusing double message.

If the behavior truly falls under the category of tattling — and no one’s physical or emotional well-being is at stake — here are some ways to handle the issue without encouraging future tattling:

Explain what you can and cannot do about a situation. If another child chooses to stare, there’s not much one can do except ignore it.
Point out when the child is tattling and ask him if he would like to be tattled on. That will help the child to understand the difference between “tattling” and “reporting” (which should happen when someone’s well-being is at stake).
Don’t be too quick to separate the children. While this can easily put an end to conflict, it doesn’t give children the opportunity to work it out for themselves. Children need to learn to cooperate and problem solve.
Tell the child you need to see the behavior for yourself. It wouldn’t be fair to take one child’s word over another, and oftentimes tattlers are seeking fairness.
Ask the child what she would like you to do. The answer will tell you how serious the situation is to the child and gives you the opportunity to put it back on the child. Frequently, children just want you to be aware of what’s going on.
Talk with your children a lot more than you think you should. This will help in every facet of their lives by letting them know they have an advocate, protector and committed, loving parent they can trust.
As published in the September 2008 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.