How often do kids who are expressing unhappiness about another child hear this message from the well-meaning adults in their lives?
“Don’t tattle! You don’t want to be a tattle-tale, do you?”
The word “tattling” means that someone is trying to get someone else into trouble by “telling on” them – and, in the dynamics of our families, schools, and youth programs, this behavior definitely happens. Unfortunately, labeling this behavior as “tattling” and merely telling kids “don’t be a tattle-tale” doesn’t help them learn how to solve problems or teach them how to find better ways of getting attention.
Even worse, shaming labels like these often stop young people from getting help when they really need it, because they don’t want to be a “tattle-tale” or a “snitch.” Telling kids not to “tattle” builds a code of silence that can perpetuate even bigger problems, like bullying and abuse.
If a child comes to us complaining about someone, clearly this child needs something from us. Instead of labeling this action as “tattling”, we can:
- Listen to make sure we understand, show compassion instead of irritation, and redirect negative behavior without shaming anyone.
- Ask if we think a child is doing this to get attention, “Are you telling me because you need help to solve this – or just because you want me to know?”
- Support a child who is struggling by saying, “Thank you for telling me. Let’s see what we can do to fix this problem.”
- Teach kids how to “make a report,” instead of whining, and “tell the whole story” – clearly, respectfully, and persistently.
We can use Kidpower’s Positive Practice Method™ to rehearse with children and teens how to use safe, respectful, and assertive behavior to make their needs and wishes known, even if they feel frustrated or upset.
Even young children can learn the differences between being passive, aggressive, and assertive in how they speak up for themselves with other kids and with adults.
If kids are acting whiny, demanding, or complaining, we can interrupt and coach them in the moment so that they can be successfully guided right away to express themselves more respectfully. For example, you can model using a powerful and respectful voice and words yourself, and say, “That way of asking sounded unkind. Please try again by saying, ‘I really want to play this game with you. Please give me a turn.’” Coach the child to repeat the words assertively – and then help the kids to work out a plan.
When kids have conflicts with each other, we can coach them to speak up respectfully and powerfully, listen, working things out, leave, find something else to do, and get help.
When kids are acting unsafely with their bodies or words, we can interrupt this behavior and coach them to act respectfully even if they are feeling frustrated.
When kids need help with communicating with peers in a positive way, we can coach them to project a respectful, confident attitude; deal with disappointment; and negotiate successful relationships.
When children complain about another child in order to get attention or to feel important, we can interrupt and then coach them to think of positive ways of meeting these needs. For example, “I’d like you to focus on what you are doing, and I’ll be in charge of seeing what the other kids are doing. So, what is your plan for getting this project done? … Good for you!”
When children attempt to make themselves feel powerful by trying to get someone in trouble, we can notice what is happening and coach them to act as leaders by making everyone feel welcome and respected.
Listening to kids constantly complaining and making demands in whiny voices can grate on the nerves of even the most patient and experienced of adults. It is hard work to keep guiding children to express their feelings and wishes in more positive ways, and to prepare them to accept occasional disappointments more gracefully.
Especially in schools, teachers and yard duty supervisors need support to take effective and compassionate leadership in the context of what can be the overwhelming realities of their jobs. They, too, need help and proactive support rather than blame in order to succeed at giving kids what they need to be safe and develop strong relationships.
By working together, we can make words like “tattling” and “tattle-tale” obsolete in the vocabulary of parents, educators, and other adult leaders – and provide our kids with better tools for getting attention, negotiating relationships, and getting help.