- They need help. If your child yells, “Matt won’t share!” it may be because he is frustrated at the situation and doesn’t know how to handle it on his own.
What to do: In this situation, more often than not, you will need to intervene. Remind both kids to share. Follow through with that reminder, making sure they are actually taking turns. Encourage them to figure out a plan for sharing, such as using a timer. By teaching them how to resolve arguments with one another, you are teaching them valuable life skills. As they grow, they should be able to, with encouragement, resolve sibling rivalry a little better on their own.
- They want attention. If your oldest daughter is constantly pointing out what your youngest is doing wrong (“She threw her cup.” “She’s getting the cookies out of the cupboard,” etc.), then it may be because she just wants a little attention from mom.
What to do: Older children can sometimes feel a little “on their own,” as they watch Mom cater to the younger children’s needs. While they dress themselves, feed themselves, and play by themselves, they are watching Mom do all of these things for/with the baby. You may want to just take a few minutes to spend some alone time with your little tattle-tale. Sometimes just a little snuggling, wrestling or reading a book one-on-one with your child can do wonders.
- They use it as a weapon. If your overhear your child seething, “If you do that, I’ll tell Mom,” they are most likely using tattling as a weapon…one of the oldest tricks in the sibling arsenal.
What to do: It’s important to nip this type of tattling in the bud. Teach your child that threatening is never okay, even if it’s something as simple as tattling. Instead, teach him how to deal with and communicate about the actual situation that made him want to tell. If it was over a prized possession, for instance, they might say to the offender, “I didn’t want you to take that because it’s very special to me.” Or if it was because another child was breaking the rules, he might say, “You shouldn’t climb on the bookshelf because you could get hurt (or because it makes Mom mad).”
- They want to clarify a rule. If your child whines, “He ate his cookie before his dinner was gone!” he may just be seeking to clarify what the rule is and to identify the consequence for breaking it.
What to do: Acknowledge the tattler with a brief response, “I’m glad you know the rule,” which satisfies the tattler’s need for approval without rewarding the tattling. You can deal with the offender as you see fit at a later time, but make sure the tattler doesn't witness the the discipline. Allowing her to watch will only encourage her to continue tattling.2
It might be a good idea to review the rules about tattling in your home. Some rules you might want to consider:
- Always try to resolve it on your own first. The very first rule of tattling should be to make sure they try to work it out themselves. Before they come talk to you, they should have already asked themselves first, “Is there anything I can do to make this better?”
- There is such a thing as appropriate tattling. It’s important for kids to understand that some things are important to tell an adult. If they or another child are in danger (for example, if your daughter sees the baby put something in his mouth), then they should know they can always come tell you. Teach your children the difference between telling about something BIG (such as someone being hurt) versus something SMALL (such as playing with the remote control) — what’s worth telling mom or dad and what is not.
- If you can’t hold it in, tell the ear. One mom, who was sick and tired of hearing her kid’s tattle tales, drew a big ear on a piece of paper and stuck it to a wall. If her kids couldn’t fight the urge to tattle, they could go “tell it to the ear.” This often did the trick — sometimes they just need to get it out! Another idea for older kids is to allow them to actually write their tattles on the ear, with Mom promising to look at it at the end of the day and deal with any major infractions.
- Call out the behavior when you see (or hear!) it. Say to your child, “I see that you’re tattling on your brother. We don’t do that in our home.” By calling it what it is, you’re teaching your child to recognize that what he’s doing is tattling and you’re reminding him that it is unacceptable.
- Communicate that you understand how he feels. But remind him that it’s his job to make the situation better. You might tell the tattling child, “I know you feel hurt that Sam isn’t sharing, but you need to try to work this out on your own. Ask him if he’d be willing to take turns.”
- Praise your child when you see she isn’t tattling. When your child does take care of her own conflicts, point it out and say, “I really like how you handled that on your own! You’re so grown up!” This will encourage her to keep trying to work things out on her own.