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How to Handle Tattling as a Gentle Parent

Were you raised with parents or caregivers or teachers who told you not to be a tattletale? Just thinking about this makes me cringe. Adults didn’t want to hear about the things that were upsetting to younger kids, tweens, or teens unless there was blood. And there are a lot of things that can happen that are wrong that don’t involve blood or imminent physical harm.

So let’s talk about tattling.

I was recently involved in a conversation online about tattling and it’s interesting to see the different points of views. But the overwhelming majority of moms in this conversation said that they basically didn’t want to hear about it unless someone was in danger. And if I am being honest, I leaned in that direction earlier in my parenting journey. And while these are likely the mindsets that were ingrained in many of us at a young age, I now realize that it sets our children up for potential harm.

Sure, your daughter might be whining for the millionth time that her little brother keeps touching her arm and she doesn’t like it and he won’t stop. It can be annoying as an adult to hear it. We just want them to get along. But instead of leaning in and helping her out by teaching her to remove herself from where her brother is, or having the brother come play near you, you tell her you don’t want to hear it and to figure it out. Because no one is dying or it’s no big deal.

Yup. I’ve said some variation of those words to my kids. But over the years, I have learned that there is value in tattling.

Imagine that you dismiss your daughter’s feelings about being touched on her arm day in and day out. She then internalizes that she can only tell on people if someone’s life is at risk or there’s blood. What if one day a neighbor kid decides he wants to touch something else of hers. Something more private than her arm. She doesn’t like it, but she’s been told not to tell unless someone is in danger. How likely is your daughter to tell you that a boy touched her privates or even that an adult did?

I know that this example is extreme, but this played out in some variation for many men and women of my generation. At school we were told by teachers not to be a tattletale. Aunts and uncles told us not to be a tattletale. Some parents told us not to be a tattletale. And other kids made fun of us for being tattletales. You see where this is going. As kids we didn’t really know which things were important enough to tell adults. Except that they told us to only tattle if there was blood or about to be blood. And many of us didn’t speak up for really terrible things that happened because we wrongly believed that the adults around us wouldn’t want to hear about it.

The truth is that as parents it’s important to foster an environment where our children feel safe and secure in our presence. They know they can tell us anything because we have proven time and time again that we will hear them when they come to us. It starts with the small things, but as they grow, they share the big things too.

Like when they are still sad that their cat is missing. Or when someone in the neighborhood does something that makes them uncomfortable. As parents we have the ability to foster a home where our kids can tell us literally anything.

My response to the mamas in this conversation was that I tell my kids to tattle. They can tattle on each other, on me, on their dad, on grandparents, friends, other adults, and more. I want to hear it. Anything THEY think is important enough to tell me is important enough for me to hear.

I might ask them something like, “do you need me to step in and help, or is this something you can work out on your own?” I also thank them for telling me, give them a hug if they need it, and then let them get back to it.

I think this “rule” is one of the reasons why my son immediately came home when a kid suddenly exposed himself to my son, because he knew that I would listen when he tattled. I don’t ever want my kids to question whether I will hear them or not if they want to tell on someone. I want them to know that when they feel uncomfortable or upset about a situation, I want to know, and I will listen. Even if it’s “He looked at me funny.” They never have to wonder “Is this something I should tell mom or not” because they know they can tell me EVERYTHING.

For big kids that tattle, another option I like is to ask, “Are you worried that it’s something that could hurt him, or that you thought it was something he wasn’t supposed to do?”

This removes any accusation like “they are trying to get their sibling in trouble” and focuses on getting information from the older child. Then it opens up opportunity for more conversation and can help you teach your big kid more about the kinds of things that are important to tell and some of the things that are okay to let go.

With that said here are some general tips that really help me when my kids (and others) come to me to “tattle”.

Manage Your Own Triggers Around Tattling

You need to do some digging in your history to understand your own triggers around tattling. Were you the tattler and got in trouble for it? Or maybe someone else always told on you unfairly. Most of us parents have some sort of a story around tattling. When you can understand your story around tattling, you’ll be better able to approach your own children and show up in ways that you wanted and desired as a child.

Find Your Peace

You might be annoyed or frustrated that your kid is coming to you every 5 minutes to tell on your other child. You need to take a moment and find peace. If your child is coming to you, it’s because whatever the issue is, it’s important to them, and you are the person they can trust in the situation.

Acknowledge What They are Saying

You might repeat back what you hear them telling you. “Oh, your sister is touching your favorite truck, and you don’t want her to play with it right now. That can be frustrating.”

Ask Questions

Do you want to put the truck away or are you okay if she continues to play with it? Do you want to set a time limit on how long she can play with it? Do you need me to step in or can you handle this on your own? Do you want to play with the truck?

Step in if Needed

If it’s apparent that the issue cannot be resolved without your help, step in if needed. “I can see that you guys are having a hard time. To preserve your relationship, I am going to put the truck up for a little while. Let’s play with some other toys instead.”

Sometimes it can be easily solved with an acknowledgement that you heard them and a hug. Other times you will need to step in to diffuse the situation and maybe encourage your kids to play separately for a little while. It can be challenging to navigate your own emotions and then hold space for theirs. But I promise you that as they grow, they learn to handle the little things on their own as you model different ways for them to do it. And then they come to you with the really important things because they know you want to hear.

So let them tattle. Because one day they might have something they desperately want to tell you. And they need to know that you want to hear it.