Tattling can be a particularly annoying problem, especially among siblings, who are often trying to one up each other in the game of sibling rivalry. Still, when one child comes to you to tattle on the other, it can be difficult to know how to handle the situation without sending one child or the other exactly the wrong message.
If you punish the child who is legitimately misbehaving, then your tattletale learns that the behavior is effective, but if you punish the tattletale are you teaching the other child that they can simply get away with it?
The answer just doesn’t seem to be obvious, but perhaps that is because you are looking at the problem the wrong way. It turns out that the problem isn’t really about who to punish or how. It’s about nipping bad behavior in the bud.
Begin with good ground rules. Before you ever have a problem with tattling, it is important that you communicate to your children what kind of information they should be sharing with you—and what they should not. We all worry that if we punish and discourage tattling indiscriminately that our children won’t come to us when someone is behaving in a manner we really need to know about.
Make sure that your children know that you should absolutely be informed when dangerous and other serious behaviors are at issue. At the same time, discourage them from coming to you with problems they can solve themselves by refusing to take a punitive interest and forcing them to deal with the issue on their own.
If your child knows that you will respond to petty complaints with a statement like: “Don’t you hate it when so and so does that?” They will lose interest in dragging you into the matter. As for the reported misbehavior, chances are, you will have an opportunity to observe and correct it independently of your interaction with the tattler.
Despite this, you may still find yourself dealing with a confirmed tattler at one point or another. Worse, this is an epidemic that can spread from one child to another. Though it can take time to undo a habit like this, with a little work, it is possible. You can start by re-emphasizing the rules to your child, explaining that tattling is not a desirable behavior. Then you may want to take some time to determine what your child’s motivation is. Do they want attention? Are they using tattling behavior to govern their siblings and peers behavior?
Do they have a problem with a particular child? None of these issues excuses the behavior, but knowing about them can help you deal with it more effectively. For example a child who craves attention or has self esteem issues needs to be taught to look for positive attention while a child who has a particular problem with another child may need to be taught some healthier conflict resolution skills. These solutions will be separate from the way that you handle tattling behavior, but without them, your attempts will be less successful.