tattle tale

Why Kids Tattle and What to Do About It

During the course of each day, I will tell my daughter to do something: “Put your shoes on!” “Clean your room.” “Empty the dishwasher!” A common occurrence five minutes later is for my son to say, “Dad, she’s not doing it.” Then I’m faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I like getting all the information I can get. On the other hand, I don’t want my child accused of being a tattle tale. I will immediately reprimand my daughter for not doing as she is told, which in turn affirms my son’s tattling. Then I tell my son not to tattle on his sister. Children have a hard time coping with mixed messages like this one.

There’s a better way. If you are having trouble with a tattle tale in your house, this will help you understand why kids tattle and what to do about it.

Child Development

In the early years, children are not “ratting” on someone when they turn into full-time informers. Young children, 2 and 3 years of age, are beginning to understand that some actions are acceptable and some are not. This is the first acceptance of right and wrong. When a young child (under the age of 7) tells a parent that someone else did an unacceptable thing, the child is really coming to the adult for attention. The child is saying, “I know what the other kid did is wrong, and I didn’t do it, even though I wanted to.” The child needs the adult to recognize this fact. Say, “I’m glad you’re not doing that. You know better, don’t you?” Children who do this type of telling often smile and walk away content that the adults in charge know how well behaved they are.


If the “someone who is doing something” warrants action, the adult needs to observe long enough to know what is actually going on before intervening. Relying on the word of one child against another child leads to nothing but trouble. Adults can stop a problem without blaming or accusing a child. If a child repeatedly comes to adults with one tattle after the next, the child wants attention. If the child is noticed only when tattling, the tattling will increase.


Parents or teachers can decrease the amount of tattling a child is doing by ignoring the tattling. When the tattler approaches, it is easy to start a conversation with the child on any other subject before the tattling begins. Special efforts should be made to see the child gets attention at other times for appropriate behaviors. Besides attention, children often need adult help.

When Tattling Is the Easy Way Out

Children would often rather have an adult solve their problems than work it out themselves. When adults always solve problems for children, it robs children of the accomplishment of solving it for themselves. Carefully consider when the child should handle it on his or her own. Instead of interfering in a child’s social problems, we need to convey to the child that “I know you will work this out. You are capable of solving your own problems even when it is difficult.” If some help is required, we can stimulate the child to think with some questions: What else could you do? What do you think should be done? Responsibility should stay where it belongs—with the child.

When Tattling Is Good

We should never say “don’t be a tattle tale” to control a child’s tattling. There are times when children come to adults because they require help. When a child feels threatened, that child needs adult help, even though it may sound like tattling. When a child is in danger, tattling is never wrong. Tattling has probably saved the life of more than one child. Children should never be afraid to ask an adult for help because they have been told that it’s wrong to tattle.

Avoiding the Label

We need to stop labeling a child as a tattle tale and pay attention to what he or she is really communicating. Tattling is a complex behavior. We need to use our adult judgment to respond appropriately in each unique situation. Our children will all be safer, emotionally and physically, and they will develop the maturity that puts an end to the tattling stage.

Sound off: How do you handle tattling? 

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Why is it important to do what I ask of you?”