Dealing with a Tattletale

No kid can resist being a tattletale from time to time. But this habit can quickly become a problem, so learn how to nip it now.

For some children, tattling and telling important information to an adult can seem like the same thing. Learn how to help them understand the difference and what the consequences should be for tattling.

"She stuck her tongue out at me for no reason!" "He grabbed my lightsaber!" "She took a lollipop without asking!" Does your child constantly snitch on her siblings and pals? Four- and 5-year-olds love to tell on people. It may be annoying—but it's also not a totally bad thing. Look at it this way: Tattling is proof that your kid can distinguish between right and wrong.

But there's no need for her to keep proving it, is there? And there are plenty of good reasons to teach her to zip her lips. For starters, no one likes a tattletale. Also, kids tend to rat each other out for all the wrong reasons—to worm their way into their parents' favor, for example, or for the naughty thrill of getting someone into trouble. We've got the lowdown on when your child is likely to tattle and how you can get her to stop.


  • The situation: Your child is playing happily in the sandbox when she notices that the child next to her is dumping sand onto the grass. She doesn't know the child, but she still screams out, "Look what he's doing, Mommy. You told me not to do that!"
  • What's going on: "Kids this age are extremely aware of rules and get very concerned when others aren't following them," says Nathan Blum, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
  • How to respond: Say to your child, "That's right. You're supposed to keep the sand inside the box." But also let her know that unless someone is being hurt, she doesn't need to tell you about it.
  • Real-mom solution: When 5-year-old Murphy Hughes snitches that another kid is using bad words or making a mess, her mom, Dana, tells her that the child's mommy or daddy will take care of the problem. "Once I explain that someone else is responsible, she's satisfied," says the Highland Park, Illinois, mother of three.

Peer Pressured

  • The situation: Your 4-year-old son and a friend are enjoying their playdate while you prepare dinner. Suddenly, your child runs into the kitchen crying, "Jonathan took my truck while I was playing with it!"
  • What's going on: Kids this age don't know how to deal with peers who act aggressively or won't listen to them, so they often expect a parent to run interference, says Susan Isaacs Kohl, author of The Best Things Parents Do.
  • How to respond: Brainstorm together to solve the problem. Say, "What should you do next?" If he doesn't have any ideas, suggest a few, such as politely asking his friend to give the truck back or taking turns playing with it. "This sends your child the message that he has skills and choices, and that he can gradually learn ways to solve problems independently," explains Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
  • Real-mom solution: Gina Seamans doesn't jump in when her 5-year-old, Bryce, complains that his older brother isn't playing nicely. Instead, she's given Bryce a standard comeback to use: "I'll have him say, ‘If you act that way, I'm going to play by myself,' " says the mom from Arvada, Colorado.


  • The situation: Even when it doesn't involve her, your 5-year-old constantly lets you know when other kids are doing things she thinks are wrong ("That boy is eating too many cookies" or "She's not wearing shoes!").
  • What's going on: She's eager to gain your approval, and pointing out other kids' mistakes is a way of showing you that she knows how to act properly.
  • How to respond: Remind her that it's not her job to monitor other children. Since she's seeking attention, spend extra one-on-one time together, and compliment her when she behaves properly ("You asked for a snack nicely, so you may have one").
  • Real-mom solution: If her son Christopher, 4, tells on his 3-year-old brother, Zach, Michelle Leeper, of Sunrise, Florida, tries to ignore it. But if the snitching continues, she sends the boys to separate rooms. "That way, instead of rewarding the tattling with my attention, I'm discouraging it," she says.


Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the September 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

By Pamela Kramer

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