Tattling or Telling? How to Develop Positive Peer Relationships in Young Children

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brother and sister stand off“Jaylen stuck his tongue out at me!”, “Amanda said she’s not my friend!”,  “Ben took my truck and he won’t give it back!”. Such cries are common among young children, and lead to frustration for parents as they try to navigate the murky world of children’s social interactions. Sometimes, a situation is important for a child to seek adult intervention, such as when a child is physically or psychologically hurt.

Adults must intervene in these types of situations. Often children just lack the social skills necessary to handle offenses on their own.  How can parents help their young children develop problem-solving skills so they can develop positive relationships with their peers?

Tattling vs Telling

A “tattle” is when a child tells on someone else when they feel a rule is being broken. A “tell” is when a situation can result in physical or emotional harm to themselves, others, or property, requiring adult intervention.  Children are keen observers of each other and adults. That’s one of the ways they learn about their world. They become fierce defenders of rules they have learned, such as “Don’t touch the remote control,” or “Wait to have a cookie until you have eaten your lunch.”

When children see a rule being broken, they feel the need to report both the person and the offense to the nearest adult. Children need to learn when it is appropriate to report the situation to an adult, and when they have the power to handle the situation themselves. If bullying or threatening behavior is involved, it is always right to get adult help. Children need to be taught the difference.

Why do children tattle?

Children tattle for different reasons. They may tattle to gain attention from parents or teachers. They may tattle to get another child in trouble. They also may tattle to gain clarification of a rule. Older kids may lack the skills necessary to handle social situations on their own.

What are the consequences of tattling?

Consistent tattling can result in social isolation from the peer group. Children don’t trust a child who will report on them.  The result will be strained friendships and stressful arguments with other children.  A child may become too focused on others’ compliance to rules that they are ostracized from social groups. Such behavior often results in loss of friends when the tattletale is seen as someone who is not to be trusted.

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