Why Kids Tattle and What to Do About It

Children tattling is an annoying but important step in child development.

Posted Jun 30, 2018

davitydave/Flickr
Source: davitydave/Flickr

“He pushed me!” “She won’t let me have a turn!” “They’re being mean!” Tattling involves one child reporting another child’s misbehavior to someone else, almost always an adult. It’s one of the most annoying things children do. It’s also extremely common.

How often do kids tattle?

Gordon Ingram and Jesse Bering (2010) at Queen’s University Belfast conducted an observational study of the tattling behavior of forty children, ages three- to four-years, at two preschools. Over the course of 66 hours of observation, spread across 30 days, they documented 354 instances of tattling. (Pity those poor teachers!) The average rate of tattling was a bit over one report per child, per day, but the daily rates of tattling for particular children ranged from zero to more than six.

What do children tattle about?

The most common topics for tattling were property disputes, physical aggression, and rule violation. Of the tattling reports that could be verified, 90 percent were true and most of the rest involved mistaking an accident for deliberate meanness. This suggests that, although preschoolers can and do lie, their tattling very rarely involves deliberate lies.

For about three-quarters of tattling, the goal was for children to get help for themselves and/or to get the other child in trouble. Another 16 percent focused on enforcing rules. 

Why do children tattle?

The short answer to why children tattle is that it works! In almost half of the cases in the Ingram and Bering study (47 percent), teachers responded to tattling by supporting the tattler through either direct intervention or suggesting a solution. In about one-fifth of the cases (22 percent), teachers acknowledged the tattler’s complaint by listening or saying they’d talk to the other child later (but never did). Neutral responses to tattling, involving either questioning what happened or why (12 percent), making excuses for the misbehaving child (11 percent), or ignoring the tattler (10 percent). Taken together, these neutral responses happened about one-third of the time. Reprimands for the tattler (3 percent) or both children (3 percent) happened rarely. Overall this means that tattling children have a 69 percent chance of getting a positive response (intervene or acknowledge) and a 94 percent chance of getting either a positive or neutral response. 

But beyond simple practicality, there’s a deeper reason behind children’s tattling: It’s an intermediate step in social development between direct, physical aggression and more sophisticated forms of interpersonal problem solving (Ingram, 2014). During a conflict with a peer, a two-year-old is likely to hit or yell at a peer, a preschooler will tattle, an 8- to 11-year-old will gossip about the offender, and teens become increasingly able to disengage or negotiate. So, children who tattle have obtained enough social-emotional skills to refrain from hitting, but not enough to solve the problem on their own.

Tattling also implies some degree of understanding of right and wrong, or at least an ability to predict what behavior adults are likely to disapprove of. As children get older, they also consider peer reactions. Ivy Chiu Loke and her colleagues (2011) presented children with vignettes about various types of misbehavior. Six- to seven-years-olds thought tattling was appropriate to report all wrong-doings, but eight- to ten-year-olds believed that it was appropriate to tattle about serious wrong-doing, such as stealing, but not about trivial misbehavior, such as someone not eating vegetables at lunch.

This differentiation between tattling about serious versus trivial misbehavior is likely to reflect a balancing of concerns about adult rules and peer acceptance. Older elementary school children criticize peers who are “snitches” or “tattletales.” Causing unnecessary hassles for a peer is not a good way to make or keep friends! Another study of 12-18-year-old boys found that kids who tattled a lot were less well-liked by their peers (Friman et al., 2004).

How should adults respond to tattling?

If we think about tattling as an intermediate step in social development, this suggests a few ways adults could respond:

- Offer empathy

Simple acknowledgment along the lines of “It bothers you when he does that” supports and recognizes the self-control that young children show in not hitting a peer. With little ones, you could also ask, “Do you need a hug?” However, unless it’s a serious problem, we don’t want to leap to solve the situation for kids who tattle, because that teaches them that adult intervention is the best and only way to deal with peer conflict.

- Distinguish between trivial and serious misbehavior

You may want to post a list of guidelines distinguishing between telling versus tattling. Telling is about solving serious issues. Tattling is just an attempt to get a peer in trouble. Your list could include questions such as: Will anyone get hurt? Will anything get broken? Have you tried to solve it on your own? If the answer to all of these is no, then it’s not a situation requiring adult involvement. 

- Encourage direct problem solving

Ultimately, our goal is to teach kids healthy ways to resolve conflicts with peers on their own. Talking things through with an adult can be an important stepping stone toward this. Ask questions to help your child consider options: “What could you do to solve this?” “What could you say to her?” “What else could you try?” “What can you do while you’re waiting?” “What can you do if he won’t listen?”, or “How do you think she’ll react if you do that?”


 

References

Friman, P. C., Woods, D. W., Freeman, K. A., Gilman, R., Short, M., McGrath, A. M., et al. (2004). Relationships between tattling, likeability, and social classification: A preliminary investigation of adolescents in residential care. Behavior Modification, 28, 331–348.

Ingram, G. P. (2014). From hitting to tattling to gossip: An evolutionary rationale for the development of indirect aggression. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(2), 147470491401200205.

Ingram, G. P., & Bering, J. M. (2010). Children’s tattling: The reporting of everyday norm violations in preschool settings. Child development, 81(3), 945-957.

Loke, I. C., Heyman, G., Forgie, J., McCarthy, A., and Lee, K. (2011). Children’s moral evaluations of reporting the transgressions of peers: Age differences in evaluations of tattling. Developmental Psychology, 47, 1757–1762.