Tattling kids

“You’re tattling again!” A look at tattling from a child's perspective

Thanks to Michelle for this guest post about tattling!

“You’re tattling again,” my daughter tells me the teacher responded to her one afternoon. My daughter approached her first-grade teacher to inform her that a fellow classmate was opening supply cabinets.

“So, are we allowed to go into those cabinets?” my six-year-old questioned.

“No,” her teacher replied.

This is just one of many examples involving “tattling” that my daughter has brought home from her year and a half in public elementary school. For her, tattling is a new concept since it is not a phrase we use at home. When our two daughters come to us about another child’s behavior, we listen because our child has come to us with a concern. We don’t solve the problem for her. But, we do help her find language to address her concern with the other child.

In this situation, we might have responded with, “Thank you for noticing what’s happening in the classroom. I know that you can remind your classmates of our rules. Do you want me to stand near you this time while you let him know?”

Why do kids tell?

In this instance, my daughter’s immediate follow up question reveals her primary motive in coming to the teacher. She is asking, “Is that student doing something that is allowed? Am I allowed to go into those cabinets, too?” Her motive is not to cause the other child to have consequences or be punished. Rather, she sees something happening in the classroom that does not make sense to her and she is seeking out clarification from the authority figure in the room. How do I know this? Because I asked her and my daughter has a history of responding with honesty. There have been situations where she does want another child (usually her younger sister) to face negative repercussions and she is typically upfront about that desire.

My daughter attended a preschool focused on helping children stand up for their bodies, articulate their personal boundaries, and confront unwanted behavior from others. She is no stranger to saying, “No!”, “Stop!”, and “Respect my body!” She has also been raised in an environment both at home and in her preschool setting where adults have been her resources when others don’t listen to her boundary setting. Her first week of kindergarten involved a boy in her seating group calling her names and purposefully spitting in her face. My child did exactly what she had been raised to do. She repeatedly responded, “Stop spitting in my face! Don’t call me that!” When she got home, she told me about the incident and her reaction, and I felt reassured that she was able to look a new child in the eye and establish boundaries for how that person should treat her.

Children looking for help

In other words, my child does not run to adults to solve her problems for her. But, she does need to be able to turn to the grownups in her environment when someone fails to listen to her boundary setting, when a situation is confusing, or when she is uncertain how to appropriately handle a conflict. As adults, we have access to many resources. We can seek help from family and friends. When conflicts escalate, we can call the police or other emergency personnel. We can choose to get help from a counselor, therapist, or professional mediator. If we are uncertain about a rule or law, we can search for information on our computers and phones. We can even drive ourselves to the library and find entire books filled with information and resources that can help us. Now imagine if you were five or six years old and navigating a new school classroom environment. What resources are at your disposal? Who can you turn to in times of conflict or confusion? Naturally, your teacher is the first person that comes to mind.

No tattling

After a year and a half of wading through a school culture that is drastically different than our home and preschool experiences, I can’t recall all of the times the term “tattling” has been on my daughter’s tongue as she got into the car after school. In fact, I struggled with finding just one or two examples to write about in this post. In the end, I decided that what is most important in all of the incidents that we have experienced is that my daughter is looking to her teacher for guidance and it is not being given. My child’s teachers have not been the resources she has needed when peer conflicts have arisen and classroom rules have been confusing. Instead, she has received a curt response to “stop tattling.” During our fall conference, her current teacher informed me that my daughter is “a little police officer.” After a conversation in which my husband and I tried to articulate our point of view about why we don’t use the term tattling in our household, the teacher continues to use that phrase with my daughter.

Tattling vs telling

Based upon a Google search of tattling in the classroom, our school’s approach does not seem to be isolated or unique. Teachers are charged with the responsibility of helping children distinguish between “tattling and telling.” Telling is intended to be something that violates the physical or emotional safety of another. Some teachers seem to group all of the concerns children express about their peers and possible violations of classroom rules into the category of “tattling”. I believe this distinction is nuanced and difficult for a kindergartner or first grader to understand. Additionally, grown-ups may have a difficult time understanding what constitutes a violation of a five or six-year-olds “emotional safety.” “She won’t play with me at recess unless I give her my marker,” might feel like a small incident to a parent or teacher. For a child, this might be a difficult and emotionally threatening situation that requires the help of an adult to navigate.

Using the term “tattling” communicates that a child’s concern is not worth adult attention. When my daughter has received this feedback from teachers, she has articulated that she feels corrected, scolded, and silenced. When we use this language, we are shaming our children for having a concern that feels too big to handle on their own. How can we expect them to turn to us throughout their lives as their challenges grow if we cannot take the time to listen and help them now? As a mother, I worry about the long term consequences of my child learning in an environment where her concerns are communicated to be invalid, unimportant, and extraneous to the learning environment. In fact, one website indicated that tattling takes away from “real learning,” but isn’t learning to respond to conflicts with our peers one of the hardest, ongoing lessons of our lives?

There are better approaches out there

During my research, I was happy to find this resource from Responsive Classroom that argues for a more nuanced approached to tattling. It is important to empower our children to resolve conflicts and establish boundaries with their peers. As parents and teachers, we do our children a disservice when we intervene and do this difficult work for them. When faced with a child who brings us a concern about a peer’s behavior, we can role model how to communicate with others and help our children find the words to articulate their needs.  If we fail to do this, we communicate harmful messages that can have a long term impact in silencing our children. When we dismiss their attempts at communicating a concern as mere attention seeking behavior or a general nuisance, we are creating an environment in which adults cannot be trusted to be the resources our children need.


A balanced perspective from Responsive Classroom: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/what-to-do-about-tattling/

Difference between tattling and telling: http://www.togetheragainstbullying.org/the-difference-between-telling-and-tattling

Managing tattling in the classroom: https://classroomcaboodle.com/teacher-resource/tattling-school/

Michelle is a former college administrator turned stay-at-home mom in central Ohio. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and a mom alongside her five and six-year-old daughters. Michelle attempts to knit, crochet, practice yoga, and read fiction in the midst of mothering.

27 thoughts on ““You’re tattling again!” A look at tattling from a child's perspective

  1. It’s a big concern that children are treated like that. Children’s ideas, experiences, and feelings are often shut down by parents, even when they don’t realize it (“stop crying, it isn’t a big deal” and all the shaming of memes on the internet, for example). It is my hope that posts like this will penetrate through all the conditioning we all had as children and allow us adults to be far more compassionate with not only our children, but other people’s children, too. A peaceful world starts with how adults treat children.

    Thank you for writing such and insightful and thought provoking post!
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  2. This is an amazing article.

    My children are being taught Kelso’s rules at school as a way to independently problem solve situations. Learning how to operate in a classroom is hard business. I’m sorry that you little one was so confused by this situation. But totally awesome that she did the right thing!

  3. Very well written and a great read. I know some teachers who should read this. I know for my daughter she is a very literal person so when you say this is a rule it is a RULE until the end of time. No changing it. Adults need to think more before they take action sometimes.

  4. Gosh I’ve never thought of it like this before. I have three year old twins and we haven’t gotten to this point yet. Thanks for enlightening me 🙂

  5. I think that this article needs to be shared with many educators who too often shut down children’s concerns as merely “tattling” or “policing”. You are so correct that these children need a safe resource to go to when they find themselves in either a threatening or confusing situation and in the classroom, that is going to be the teacher.

  6. This is a great read. We’ve had this issue with my daughter but it has now made her shut her feelings away. Whenever she was being bullied at school, she would attempt to tell a teacher but would always be told “stopping tattling on your friends.” Well that has now led to severe anxiety issues and fortnightly psychology appointments. I wish that teachers would take the time to read your post xx

  7. It is difficult to find your place in a classroom or in a group of peers. I think it is important to make sure the adult is always there to take issues seriously. Great article.

  8. I echo what Meeta said in her comment. My son is taught to tell how he feels to adults in school without hurting others feeling. If it’s ignored, we’ll take the issue directly to his teacher.

  9. I respect your opinion and love that you are raising your children with so much conviction. We need more parents like you! However, I have to disagree with your article. I work in a first-grade classroom and I don’t think you completely understand what a first-grade classroom is like. In my classroom, we talk about tattling about 21656 times each day. The children know that they should not tattle and are taught to respect others and themselves. Let’s say that the teacher is working with a small group of struggling students with a new math concept when a student interrupts to her to say that someone is doing ‘whatever.’ The student who interrupted the teacher now has to stop her lesson to address this issue. Meanwhile, the offending student has gotten back to work. Now the entire small group is off task and the teacher must try to get them to focus again. I agree with you that your child’s teacher should make her feel understood, but students also need to understand to respect their teacher by letting them teach and worrying about what they are doing instead of what their classmates are doing. I hope this doesn’t come off as harsh, I don’t think I explained my point very well, but I wanted to share a different side of this issue.

    1. I can understand and appreciate your point of view as a teacher. And I can say in my son’s kindergarten classroom, they have focused both on asking 3 friends before the teacher as well as the difference between tattling vs. telling. Meaning that they aren’t supposed to tell on someone if they only want to get them in trouble, but can tell if they need help. But I can still tell you that my son feels he will get in trouble if he asks his teacher anything at all. Even for help with a question about his school assignments. And in some school districts, like where Michelle’s (the author of my guest post) daughter goes, there seems to be an inappropriate focus on tattling district-wide, like it’s what they’ve chosen to focus on with their behavior policy. Michelle’s daughter has been spit on, bitten, and kissed on the mouth by another student, and been told that the teacher doesn’t want to hear about any of it and will address behavior only if she sees it, and not if it is reported by a student. Those situations are most definitely not okay, and interrupt learning just as much as the teacher having to interrupt what she’s doing to mediate conflict. And obviously, what children are required to learn at school is not up to teachers. But maybe if children were allowed to play, build relationships, learn to mediate conflict, and learn about how school works in kindergarten, rather than the developmentally inappropriate push-down of academics, then by first grade their skills at such things would be much better.

  10. Thank you for this! I hate when children are just completely dismissed like that and then we sit and wonder why when they get older they let bad things happen without telling anyone.

    I swear stuff like this will finally push me over the edge to just homeschool when my baby gets school age.

  11. I read through this and actually got angry.
    No child should be silenced!
    Why can we not take into account what the child is saying? There are reasons for them to do it. By telling them that they are ‘tattling’ and basically telling them to be quiet, we are telling them that they don’t actually matter and they should not tell the people that they are supposed to trust what’s going on around them.
    And the fact that the teacher called her a little police man. No.
    This system sounds awful.

  12. My kids definitely have been told this in classrooms when they are younger. This is such an interesting perspective from the child’s point of view.

  13. This was insightful. Very few people realize, as you did, that the child is just trying to figure out what the rules and boundaries are. But it’s often mischaracterized as tattling.

    How can we expect people to do the right thing and say something when we’re constantly stopping them?

  14. I’m an elementary school teacher and I try to have kids sort things or between themselves with my help/ mediation or sometimes learn to lay what others are doing go. Some children are overly hung up on what others are doing which consumes their focus.

  15. I’m glad that you’re listening to your child. Often times they don’t open up to us because we will only stop them from talking or not listen at all. There will also be times where parents would get mad at them. It’s important to let our kids know that we have their back and that we are here to listen and to help them with their concern too.

  16. That’s very insightful. I think it’s a parent’s job to interpret and understand what their kids are trying to say and it’s nice that you’ve cleared this up as a reminder to all the parents out there.
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  17. Awesome blog post! As adults we sometimes forget what it’s like as kids. We ask them to follow the rules and then get upset when they tell us that the rules are being broken!

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