How we handle tattling in our family and food for thought as to why kids tattle and how parents can head that off.
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Before we get too far into this post, I need to be certain you notice the name of this post – How WE Handle Tattling. I’m not some tattling expert. I’m simply offering my perspective and experience after having 10 kids and plenty of opportunities for people to tattle in this house.
If you are reading this, you probably have tattling in your home that has you at your boiling point. You might be angry, helpless, and even a little sad. And frankly, you wish you didn’t have to deal with it all. I hope my suggestions give you concrete solutions, hope, and encouragement in your parenting.
What is Tattling?
Let’s start off with defining what tattling is. According to the dictionary, it’s basically to report someone else’s wrongdoing.
It’s not quite gossip, but it’s headed that direction. And it’s definitely not a chit chat or something like that. It has a different motive.
As parents, we have to be very discerning as to what the motive is behind the things our children are telling us because that will determine whether they are tattling or gossipping or whether they are simply bringing a concern to you. You have to put on your parent ears and your parent eyes and figure out what the motives are before you can deal with it properly. I’ll give you things to ask your kids to help you figure this out, but first, let’s talk about why our kids tattle.
Why do Kids Tattle?
There could be several different reasons why you might have a child come to you and report one of their siblings for wrongdoing. Typically, the number one reason we identify something as tattling is that we anticipate the child who is doing the tattling wants the other child to get into trouble.
It’s plain and simple – they want justice (or their perceived version of justice) served swiftly and immediately.
You can often pick out the justice-oriented children out in a family. They are the ones who like things fair and even. They want people punished for anything that doesn’t seem fair, and they are often the ones who feel compelled to tattle when they can’t figure out how to quickly get justice from the situation. Quite often, it is this deep sense of justice that causes them to tell of another’s wrongdoing. They want to see justice served, and they want it now.
Another reason a child might tattle is simply because they want to get their own way. Once again, the child wants justice served, but it is a justice that is also self-serving. In this case, it might be real wrongdoing or it might be perceived wrongdoing, but it usually has to do with not getting something they wanted; therefore, they decide they need to tell mom so she can make it right and they can get what they want in the process.
And then, there are certain children who feel the need to tell everybody’s every movement including wrongdoings. They like to tell all and be “in the know.” They like to come to mom with every little thing happening in the household. There may or may not be an ulterior motive for the telling. This isn’t super common, but it can be just as troubling as tattling.
We definitely shouldn’t be encouraging tattling, and I don’t believe we should be encouraging tattling just for information purposes either. We are raising children who will one day be adults, so we need to be aware of childish behaviors that aren’t very becoming in adulthood and work to guide our children away from those behaviors.
I’m sure we all know someone who likes to share all kinds of information about other people, and we are all a little annoyed by it. And left unchecked, this kind of “information dumping” can easily lead to gossip, something MUCH worse than tattling. So, if you feel like if your child is an information dump kind of kid, they are possibly going to be very tempted to end up being a gossipy kid who turns into a gossipy adult, and you definitely do not want that, as the Bible speaks very strongly against gossip.
The final reason your child might tattle to you about another child is that they actually have a legitimate concern. Honestly, I would not call this tattling unless the way they present their information comes across as one of the aforementioned motives. We’ll talk more about how to correct this in a bit.
What to do when your child tattles
The very first thing I do when I realize tattling is coming toward me is to stop the child the second they start to tell on their sibling. I stop them because I want to find out the motive before I let them finish their sentence. I do not want them to thoughtlessly spew unkind words (potential slander) about their sibling that I must try to correct after the fact.
By stopping them immediately, the words are not said and there is less damage done. It gives me a chance to talk to them and discern their motive. It also gives them a chance to cool down because tattling is often done in haste and is very emotional. That’s one of the reasons you can hear when your child is getting ready to tattle – it sounds highly emotional, and it pours out of them, quickly and sometimes incoherently. They tend to sound whiny and complainy. It just sounds like tattling!
Because you know what tattling sounds like, you are able to stop your child immediately. And from there, you can ask questions to help you ascertain their motive and also help them think about their own reasons for coming to you.
Now for the questions you should ask them…
Start with, “Is this a safety issue?”
If the answer is no, you can move on to the next question. If yes, then go check it out, but be sure it truly is a real-must-be-dealt-with-immediately safety issue.
Next ask, “What is your motive?”
Your child might have a bit of trouble figuring out why they are tattling, but it’s important they take a beat to figure out why they came to you. So, give them just a moment, and then move to the next question to help guide them to the answer…
“Are you telling me this to get someone in trouble?”
In my experience, they often answer “no” to this one. You’ll need to keep helping them unpack the why just in case their initial “no” isn’t correct. So, ask them this question…
“Are you trying to tear them down or build them up? In other words, are you trying to hurt or help them?”
You want them to think about whether or not they want their sibling to learn from things and change their ways or if they just want them punished. As Christians, we should be about the business of restoration, so I want to know if my child is trying to restore this relationship or tear it apart?
Ask them to think real hard about that question, and then ask this KEY question…
“Have you gone to them yourself and tried to work this out?”
The reason I ask this question is because I am trying to guide my children toward Matthew 18 Biblical principles for confrontation and sin. I want my children to try to resolve issues between themselves before they ever come to me and involve me. Doing so takes practice, so I must guide them through the process.
Another way I try to discern if they are tattling or not is by asking…
“What outcome would you like to see happen after telling me this?”
And yes, this is BEFORE they tell me what happened. I want them to really be thinking about WHY they came to me and WHAT they want to have happen as a result, so hopefully, they will be able to honestly answer the previously asked questions when they think it all through.
You could even follow up with a few suggestions like, “Do you want me to go in and punish them?” or “Do you want me to fix this?”
And then finally, I can ask them,
“Is this a legitimate concern that needs MY attention and intervention right now or can it wait?”
By this point, you should have a clear picture of where your child’s heart is in the matter, and they have had enough time to cool down and start to realize their own motives.
- Is this a safety issue?
- What is your motive?
- Are you telling me this to get someone in trouble?
- Are you trying to tear them down or build them up? Hurt or help?
- Have you gone to them yourself and tried to work this out?
- What outcome would you like to see happen after telling me this?
- Is this a legitimate concern that needs my attention and intervention now?
Now, some of you may be concerned that all of this took WAY too long and if it was a legitimate concern, the window of opportunity to nip this in the bud has long since passed. And what if it was a serious issue needing IMMEDIATE attention?!
Truth be told, this entire process only takes about 30 seconds.
No really, 30 seconds.
That is all you really need to get them to slow down and for you to quickly ascertain if you are dealing with tattling or not.
It’s worth the time it takes.
What if your child’s tattling is justified?
Sometimes our children come to us with legitimate issues that sound an awful lot like they are getting ready to tattle. If this is the case, they need guidance from you to help them learn how to express concerns in an appropriate manner. Go through the questions, then if you realize they have a legitimate concern, hear them out and handle the situation. Walking them through those questions will help them realize a better way to come to you with concerns in the future.
The Ultimate Tattling Question
At the heart of this issue is one big question you must ask yourself as their parent…
“Is this selfish, or is this God-centered?”
Honestly, this is the question we all need to ask ourselves in everything! But, for tattling, we must use this one question to decide our child’s motive and then act/guide/direct accordingly.
Ways to Handle Tattling
Our instinct as mothers is to always intervene and fix things as quickly as possible. But, if our children can work things out between themselves, that is often the best course of action. And most times, they can work things out without you.
Certainly, there are times when the other child does not listen or self-correct, and when that happens, you children should know you are available to help them. (See Matthew 18).
Frankly, in my home, there isn’t a lot of tattling, and I honestly believe it is because I stop them immediately, ask those questions, point them in the direction they should go, and let them try to work things out themselves.
Tattling for Safety Concerns
My one big caveat to all of this is that I absolutely DO listen to tattling that is for legitimate safety concerns. Someone was misbehaving and fell and is bleeding, someone is playing dangerously with the wooden swords, someone stuck their head through the banister railing and can’t get out…you know, things like that! Mom to the rescue!
Are YOU Encouraging Tattling in Your Home?
I hate to have to ask this, but is there any chance YOU encourage tattling?
Perhaps you had bad sibling relationships as a child, and you feel the need to become a buffer between every single negative interaction your children have between each other. Perhaps you figure stepping in is the fastest way to bring peace back to your home. Perhaps you think moms are supposed to fix everything all the time.
Hear me, mama…that’s not your job.
You don’t need to facilitate every single issue they have, and if you continually put yourself into that position, in which you feel you must always make sure everyone is getting along, they will assume you WANT to hear of every wrongdoing because you WANT to fix all their problems.
YOU end up doing all the talking, YOU end up doing all the mediating, YOU are constantly in the middle of everything all the time, and your children never learn to work things out, talk things out, advocate for themselves, and resolve issues on their own.
Don’t encourage an environment of tattling.
Stop it right where it starts. Don’t listen to it. Send them back to learn how to deal with issues themselves. Teach them how to speak kindly to their siblings and learn how to express concerns.
Certainly, you can stand there and listen if you want to, but try not to interject too much. Try to let them fully figure things out between themselves. Be available if they need your help to intervene and to guide and and to share your opinion on how they could handle things. But, letting them work things out will help them understand each other. Their relationship will be strengthened because they haven’t immediately gone to you to solve all their problems, making you a wedge between them.
In short, stop the tattling at the beginning. Expect your kids to learn how to work out their own problems in a calm manner. Step in if something escalates between the siblings or someone needs a little bit of guidance in saying they’re sorry or in giving forgiveness, but don’t make it your job to mediate between siblings all day long.
Parenting is about guiding children toward solutions, not BEING the solution.
Eventually, you will see the tattling melt away because you simply don’t listen to it. In the process, you help your children learn conflict resolution skills that will stick with them into adulthood. It’s a win-win for everyone!