As a school counselor, I often share with parents one of my favorite quotes by Catherine M. Wallace: “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”
But where does that leave tattling? We certainly don’t want to encourage an influx of tattling in our classrooms, or in our homes -- there just isn’t time. And ultimately, we want to empower children to be able to solve small problems on their own.
1. Validate the child’s concerns.
Even when tattling happens, you can continue to build a trusting relationship in the way you respond to children’s concerns. Rather than being dismissive, help them feel validated. After all, they chose YOU as their trusted adult to help them. Take the time to actively listen to their concern. Empower them to follow-up on their own concern, perhaps by writing to you more about it, or drawing a picture of what happened to share with you at a later time. (The added work might even decrease the frequency of tattling!)
2. Help children learn the difference between tattling or reporting.
Help children discern between tattling and reporting, which you can also refer to as “telling” or “warning.” Explain how children sometimes tattle to get someone into trouble, but reporting is a way to get help for someone else. Encourage them to report only when a problem is too big for them -- when someone is hurt, sick, in danger, or needs help from an adult.
3. Teach children to determine the size of their problem.
Discuss with children how to determine the size of their problem. Is it a small problem, one they can handle on their own? Is it a medium-sized problem that needs to be dealt with right away, with minimal help? Or is it a large problem, one that needs immediate help from a trusted adult?
Provide examples and allow them to discuss each scenario to determine whether it is tattling or telling. In a classroom setting, students could move to one side of the room or the other, or you could set up a classroom scoot activity, where the students read and respond to scenario cards scattered around the room.
Be sure to let children know they need to report big problems to an adult immediately. Big problems can include emergencies, bullying (especially if they’ve tried to solve the problem on their own, but it continues). Thank the child for reporting a big problem to you so they know they did the right thing to tell an adult: “I’m so proud of you for telling me about this. I know it might have been hard, but you are helping your friend be safe.”
4. Equip children with the tools to solve small problems on their own.
Once students have a better understanding of how to identify the size of their problem, teach them skills for solving small problems on their own. Use role play to demonstrate how to share, take turns, compromise, apologize, etc. Instead of telling them to “use your words,” model appropriate sentence starters, such as “I statements: “I feel...when you…because…I need…” Emphasize that tone of voice and body language have more importance than even the words spoken. Encourage them to speak confidently but in a kind voice, stand up straight, and make eye contact and avoid using a whiny tone or looking down/away while speaking to the other child.
5. Instill a culture of kindness.
Instill a culture of kindness in your home or classroom. Encourage children to look for ways to compliment the other child. How have they been kind to you? What compliment would you give them? These would be great to share in Morning Meetings or circle time at school, or at mealtime at home. Some teachers ask students to “sandwich” a concern about another child by giving a compliment before and after the concern. In the same way you might set up a tattle box in your classroom, set up a kindness box, where students can write compliments to peers on small pieces of paper and drop them in an empty tissue box they’ve decorated. Every once in a while, you could read them at circle time. Read them in advance and ensure each child hears a compliment.
6. Address the root of the tattling behavior.
For your chronic tattlers, consider the root of the habit. If they are tattling to show that they know the rules, explain the difference between tattling and reporting. If they are having a hard time fitting in with their peers, pair them with a friendly student who might be able to build a positive connection. If they are tattling to be in charge, assign them specific jobs to help around the classroom or home. If you believe they are seeking attention, make sure you are giving them attention in other ways.
For another resource on tattling, check out Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle, available now.