Your Tattling Toddler

siblings pouting

Think of the biggest gossip in your group of friends. If you can’t pick one out, chances are it’s you. If you were to trace that person back to their childhood, there’d be a pretty good possibility that they were a notorious tattletale.

People gossip and children tattle for pretty much the same reasons: it gains them attention and makes them feel important.

We want our toddlers to feel self-confident as they discover the world around them and encounter the challenges that come with learning new things, but this self-confidence can sometimes manifest itself as arrogance and smugness, turning your little angel into a tattling demon.

He lives for your approval at this age. What better way to do this then to point out when his siblings or other children in his circle are doing something wrong?

Understanding Why Children Tattle

It’s certainly a good thing when our children can come to us when they feel that something bad is going on or if someone is hurting them. We want to foster that openness and communication between us and our children, but are there ways we can reign in the tattling monster yet allow our children to come to us when they need to?

unhappy toddler

Once he learns the difference between right and wrong, your child wants to demonstrate that knowledge as often as he can, often without being able to differentiate between simply demonstrating good moral sense and being an irritating tattler. He hasn’t learned the tools for conflict resolution so anything that he deems ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ he’s coming to you with, from ‘Jason took my toy’ to ‘Jason jumped off the bed and broke his tooth’. It’s up to you teach him what ends of the spectrum ‘tattling’ and ‘telling’ fall on.

Help Kids Know When to Tell and When It's Tattling

First, when your child comes to you with something that falls into the ‘tattling’ category, don’t get upset with them. This makes them feel like they did something bad and made you mad at them, making them less likely to come to you when something important happens because they fear you’re just going to yell at them.

Remember, you want to maintain that comfort level with your child.

The best way to do that is by teaching them how to handle ‘tattle-worthy’ conflicts themselves. If something falls into the ‘tattling’ category, like your child says a sibling pushed him, talk to him about what he thinks would be a good thing to do next. Tell your child that the next time the other child pushes him, your child should tell them to stop it. If they’re playing a game and it happens, suggest to your child that maybe he could tell the child if he doesn’t apologize, your kid won’t play with him anymore.

The important thing is to give your child options so that he can learn how to resolve the situation himself.

Another effective way of helping curb tattling is to read stories with your child about tattling. A good book to read with your child is The Tattle Tail Tale by Tandy Braid, a sort of ‘Pinocchio-like’ story that teaches about the negative effects of tattling as opposed to lying resulting in Pinocchio’s nose growing.

Make it clear to your child that there is an important difference between tattling on someone and informing you that someone is doing something dangerous that could harm themselves or your child. At this age, he can’t make the distinction himself and it’s a tricky thing trying to explain why they should tell you some things and not others.

You want to give them positive reinforcement when they come and tell you something like their sibling is playing with matches or is playing with a knife. Let them know you are very grateful they told you because their sibling could have been really hurt. They will slowly come to learn that the fact that someone could get hurt, as opposed to wanting to get someone in trouble or tattling something they can handle themselves, shows them how to make the decision for themselves first.

mom holding crying toddler

If they come to you with something clearly designed to get their sibling in trouble, your best reaction is to make the news immaterial. If they say something like “Jason didn’t put his toys away.” You should come back with ‘Well that really doesn’t have anything to do with you, does it? I’ll be able to see for myself that he didn’t put his toys away so you don’t have to tell me that.” By taking away his power to get his sibling in trouble, you cut down on the instances that he’ll try to do so.

Now how to explain that he should tell when an adult is trying to or has hurt him? Up until this point, you’ve been trying to instill in your child the notion that the adults in his life tell him what to do because they love him and want to keep him safe. What happens when that’s not always the case?

As early as you can, in terms your young child can understand, explain appropriate rules of behavior from adults to your child and make it very clear what is not appropriate. If you’re okay with, in addition to you and your significant other, your mom or dad spanking your child, let your child know that that’s okay but to tell you if anyone else does it. Teach them about ‘good’ touching and ‘bad’ touching and that even if the person is a grown up that ‘bad’ touching is never okay and it’s alright for them to ‘tell’ on the grown up.

If you just set down some simple guidelines and don’t give in to their desire to get attention by tattling, you make the tattling ineffectual and it will quickly lose its appeal. Your child will soon learn that there are more positive ways to get your attention.