Children tattle and tell tales : it’s a normal part of childhood development. There are times when these tales should be taken very seriously, but more often they’re about something minor. Each instance of tale telling, each family, child and parent involved is unique, so I can not give you a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, what follows is a checklist to help you diagnose the nature of the tattle and important factors to consider in arriving at fair outcomes (here’s a short aide memoire to stick on your fridge if you’re interested). As an Outstanding Teacher, I’ve mediated a lot of disputes in my time, so I know what I’m talking about!
The cognitive development required for telling tales comes at Preschool age and older, but if you have a younger child read on anyway as it will stand you in good stead 🙂 Perhaps even fill in the dialogue for the toddlers when there is a serious disagreement!
The gold standard in mediating: adults should listen, encourage kids to work things out for themselves and if intervention really is needed, gather evidence before making a judgment. Remember, children are Adults in Training!
Have the children tried to work it out for themselves first?
Apart from in a potentially dangerous or violent situation, it’s reasonable to ask the tale teller to talk to the other children before involving an adult. My first question to a tale teller is: have you tried asking them… ?
Are the tell tale child’s tales / requests reasonable?
- Is the pitch, tone and volume of the tell tale-ing in proportion to the situation? If a kid is screaming and crying because they want something another kid has, then no, that’s not reasonable and I would give that very short shrift. (if Billy did this, I would deliberately delay his turn / apply a consequence for his behaviour).
- The other kids won’t play with them. There could be a whole host of reasons for this situation, including genuine bullying. Rather than insist that the excluded child be included without further information, I would first say to the tell tale child Tell me what happened. Assuming that this is not a case of bullying, then: Have you tried joining in with their game? Why do you think they won’t play with you? Are there any children who will play with you? The aim is to equip the tell tale child with the ability to sort it out for themselves with adults involved as mediators when they’re actually needed. The playground is a jungle and a tell tale child’s popularity is not going to improve by constantly running for help. Also, is it fair to demand that a child is liked? Think of adults you know: are there some that you would rather not socialise with? It’s so tempting to jump to the excluded child’s defense (particularly if it’s your child) without any further information, but reasons for their exclusion may include dictatorial behaviour and inflexibility or a form of comeuppance. More on this later.
- Another kid hit them. The kid who did the hitting clearly needs adult intervention (time out or consequences for example), but it’s worth digging deeper. As the parent of the hitter, I would ask why did you hit them? If they were provoked in some way, I’d point out that hitting is still inexcusable but suggest coping strategies for dealing with future provocation. This could include avoiding the other child for a while or for much older children, questioning why they are friends. As the parent of the hittee after some sympathy I would ask what happened? and listen carefully. Similarly, it may be necessary to develop some coping strategies with them / questioning the friendship. Adults can not (and should not) watch all of the time.
- Sharing. This is a tricky one. Just because another child wants something, doesn’t mean they should automatically get it. An article on Scary Mommy covers this issue brilliantly, but in summary you wouldn’t give away your possessions to another adult who asked for them, so why should your kid? It’s slightly different if you’ve invited friends to your home*, but a kid should not be required to surrender a toy immediately just because another child demands it.
* My work-around is that Billy can hide up to 2 things prior to a playdate at our house. Everything else is available for our guests to play with. If he wants something that another child has that technically belongs to him, he can ask for a turn or just wait until they’ve moved on to something else. Billy has learned from experience that asking repeatedly and making a fuss about the toy will only make it more attractive to the current player. Better to wait it out!
Have all of the children involved been heard?
The kid who tattles the most frequently / the loudest should not be heard by the adults above the voices and opinions of the other children involved. A screaming child is not necessarily the innocent party. If you suspect that a child is guilty of using this tactic to get attention, tell them the story of the Boy who cried Wolf and use some strategic ignoring if they persist. I pretend not to listen until requests are made in a reasonable way. Temper tantrums should be on the way out by age 4 – they still happen, but far more infrequently.
Every child should have access to a fair trial! Introverted children like my son often get a raw deal.
Am I as mediator being fair?
Watch for your own bias. I am an oldest child and would naturally side with an oldest child if unchecked. My pet peeve is that the youngest child is often treated as the victim by default.
Do you have different expectations of girls and boys? If so, why?
Once out of the toddler stage, kids become increasingly sophisticated. They can spot differences in parenting styles and exploit these to their advantage. This is particularly true where there is parental disagreement / more than one parent from different families present. Be prepared to listen to kids who are not yours and understand that no one kid is always the victim or always the perpetrator. If in doubt, watch closely for a while to see the friendship dynamics.
Reflect: did I make the right decision?
Watch for the different reactions following the aftermath of a tattle tale incident. Which kid got their own way? Is it usually the same kid in every instance? What look is on their face? How are they interacting with the other kids? You’ll soon uncover insincere motives and can adjust for these next time.
Even if you “rule” against them, from my experience your own kid will appreciate you for being fair. Fairness and being reasonable are cornerstones in your relationship with your child. You’ll want them to come to you about things that they know you won’t approve of sometimes – particularly as they get older. Tattle tale-ing is not the same as confiding. The former is seeking attention in the moment to instantly achieve ones goals. The latter is seeking help with an issue that is bothering them afterwards.
I’ll give you a for instance: Sometimes Billy and I talk after a day at preschool or a play date. He might say something abstract at first like are blue cars better than red ones? After a few minutes of general conversation and listening, he will tell me about points of friction that bothered him. Usually related to his abstract question. Even at his age (his 5th birthday is next week), he knows that some kids make more fuss than others (and that they usually get their own way) and that life isn’t fair. But, that his parents will always listen to him and that it is his choice about who he is friends with. There are kids that he really doesn’t like, but he is civil to them in public and uses the safe space at home to get it off his chest. Maybe that’s a British thing, but it’s a good skill for life!
If a kid is regularly dictatorial / possessive / fuss making / tantrum throwing they will lose friends as the other kids wise up! That’s comeuppance.