I can hear her barreling down the stairs between sobs.
She runs into the kitchen and announces, “He…he…he’s not sharing with me!” It’s almost as if she’s searching for something to say that will entice me to handle the fallout between her and her brother.
Before I can respond, my son swoops into the kitchen and announces, “Yeah, but she broke my toy set!”
It’s a classic tattling vs. telling moment between siblings. She says one thing, he says another. Both kids feel their experiences are valid and that I should do something to manage their situation.
Tattling vs. telling – it’s a difficult balance.
You want your kids to handle situations on their own – to problem solve and find their own solutions. It’s part of working together without always getting a “manager” or third-party involved (like parents, teachers or another grown up).
Having kids come to you for every little thing gets frustrating quickly. When your child comes barreling down the stairs for the third time in 15 minutes to let you know her brother “looked at her funny,” it’s a little…annoying.
On the other hand, you don’t want your kids not telling you about important situations.
You know, for example, when another child is being singled out at school and teased constantly. Or when their friend offers them drugs. Or when the babysitter asks them to keep a secret.
So…how exactly does one respond to tattling or telling?
When using SAY WHAT YOU SEE® – a technique where you describe what the child is thinking, doing, feeling or saying without questions, fixing or judgement – it frees you from needing to discern tattling from telling.
You can always take the child at their word and reflect back to them by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE.
“Your brother isn’t sharing with you and you didn’t like that.”
“Your toy got broken and you didn’t like that.”
“She jumped on the couch and you wanted to let me know.”
“You were worried about your friend, so you came to tell me about the situation.”
Young kids don’t have the judgement piece of tattling vs. telling. To them, it’s always telling, and then it’s up to us – the parent – to help them with the judgement piece about when it’s important to tell.
From my perspective, it’s always okay to tell a grown-up about something that’s happening.
It’s up to the grown-up help the child know whether they can go off and handle it on their own or whether it’s time for a grown up to intervene. As kids get older and more mature, they’ll be able to know ahead of telling you about something.
So for example, if the child runs down the stairs and says, “My brother wont’ share with me,” you can respond with something like, “Your brother won’t share with you and you’re not okay with that. You wanted to let me know. Tell me what you can do to let him know you’re not okay with that.”
This immediately puts the child in problem-solving mode and helps you step out of “manager role.”
Now the child may ask for guidance on what they can do, and you can say something like this:
“You can go to him and say, ‘I really want a turn with that toy.’ Or you can say, ‘Please share. Maybe I could have a turn as soon as you’re finished.’ Or you can step away from him and find something else to do. There may be another idea you have that would work too!”
Giving our kids the opportunity to handle situations on their own first is a skill that will serve them well for life.
Kids need to practice how to handle things without a grown-up constantly managing and intervening a play-by-play. It’s crucial to development that kids have the chance to practice at home, so when they go out into the real world as adults and someone does something they don’t like, they’ll know a variety of ways they can respond.
Here’s another tattling example.
Let’s say you tell your oldest child to pick up the toys. About five minutes later, a younger child comes to you and declares, “He’s not picking up the toys.”
At first glance, this sounds a lot like the younger child is trying to get the older child in trouble. While that may be true, a simple perspective shift also brings to light two things:
- The child may be wanting to show you that he is responsible, he knows the rules or heard the directions you shared with his older brother. The underlying need here would be the younger child is wanting to connect with you.
- If the younger child feels powerless or inferior to his older brother, he may be using this as a strategy to feel powerful or restore the balance of power between himself and his brother.
Kids have a lot of reasons for doing things, and while our adult brains may not always understand exactly what is going on in the moment, we can take our children at their word using SAY WHAT YOU SEE.
That’s the best part about this technique – you don’t need all the answers.
So when a child comes to you and says, “My brother isn’t picking up the toys,” you can come back with something like this:
“Your brother isn’t picking up the toys, and you sound worried about that.”
“You want your brother to pick up the toys. Must be something you can do to help him with that.”
“Your brother isn’t picking up the toys, and you wanted me to know. Looks like he could use your help. Must be something you can do.”
This helps the child go into problem-solving mode, shifting you out of the manager role and encourages the child manage the problem for themselves.
AND…it keeps them from feeling shame about coming to you about certain things.
When kids are not in a tattling vs. telling situation, you can sit down and talk about times when it’s important to ask a grown-up for help.
One conversation starter might be this:
Tell me what might be a grown up situation – a time where you need to get a grown ups help – or a kid situation – a time where you can talk to a kid about something first before going to a grown up.
Why do kids tattle?
You can always think: Why would a great kid do this?
The truth is most kids who tattle are doing what they’ve seen modeled for years: Someone correcting another person and telling them to follow the rules.
We love to correct kids over every little thing: Sit up straight, go to bed, stay in bed, get dressed, hurry up.
But when they dish out what we’ve modeled, we don’t like what we see.
When a child comes to you and they say, “So and so did this or that,” what they are actually doing is trying to help others follow the rules by letting a grown-up know they need correction.
It’s also a child who loves to know things.
A child who loves to follow the rules. A child who loves to lead others.
If you’re able see and SAY the child’s highest intention (e.g. “You were only trying to help your brother follow the rules.”) he or she will open up to your guidance.
Now you have tools when your child comes barreling down the stairs and announces between sobs, “He…he…he’s not sharing!”
You can immediately SAY WHAT YOU SEE:
“He’s not sharing and you don’t like that. Must be something you can do to let him know. Hmmm…tell me some ideas of what you can say when you get back upstairs.”
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Want more on parenting?
- The Key to Helping a Perfectionist Child Is the Opposite of What You’d Think
- Why Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child Isn’t Working
- 7 Things That Will Change How You Try to Stop a Temper Tantrum
- Routines, Boundaries and Early Bedtimes: 13 Habits That Raise Well-Adjusted Kids
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Anyone have tips for these situations and similar when one of your children is on the autism spectrum? My oldest has ASD, and his little sister often comes to “tell” me what he is or isn’t doing. I’ve tried to explain that he needs extra time to get started on a “task” and sometimes needs to be reminded many times in different ways. He also needs space in order to process the executive functioning part of “doing” anything (planning and then executing). But she’s a little kid and even I struggle daily to understand how best to navigate my son’s struggles. Between the 2 of them, there is a lot of conflict and he is the gentle soul who will avoid her all day while she chases after with reminders, commands, requests etc. Any tips? Anyone? 🙂
If you told your son to pick up his toys, it’s not your daughter’s responsibility to make sure he follows your instructions. It’s yours.
My kids are never told not to tattle. I can count the things I’m certain about on one hand – maybe just one finger: kids don’t have the ability to judge the difference between what you need to know and what you don’t. I want my kids primed to tell me and mom if something went “wrong”. The whole notion of teaching a child not to communicate the wrongs they see in the world seems weird and shady. The whole world could call my kid a “Tattle Tale”, but the alternative will always be a million times worse: a child who fears sharing her point of view so others (especially her parents) will accept her. Nope. We’re guiding them toward values and behaviors. The moments they confirm those values with their own voice… are causes for celebration, not scolding. But how do we celebrate and confirm those moments? Thanks for sharing the answer!
We’ve always asked them to share when siblings are wrecking, destroying, dangerous, or hurting others. Than the other things, we respond with,,,”oh your sister is sitting in your spot? That sounds upsetting. How do you feel/think about that? What can you say to your sister about that?” and than I ask them to go talk to their sister about the things they just said to me. And for younger kids I do sports broadcasting, “Oh Julie is frustrated, it looks like Julie wants her spot back.”.