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“Tattling” and “Telling”: What’s the Difference? (5:21) Transcript

Welcome to the People Safety Audio Lesson from Kidpower, teaching advocacy, boundary setting, and other personal safety skills for building happier lives and stronger relationships! I’m Erika Leonard with another Kidpower People Safety Tip.

So, what’s the difference between tattling and telling? Understanding the difference is a big part of being safe, because telling to get help with problems is important, but tattling is hurtful, and it makes problems bigger.

For kids and for grown-ups both, the word or the idea of ‘telling’ can get really tangled up in our minds with behaviors that we don’t like, things like whining, complaining, or people being mean, and that tangling can happen because lots of times, people say that they are ‘telling’ or that they are ‘going to tell.’ But, they are doing it in a way that’s hurtful, not helpful. They might say,

“Oooo, you broke that, I’m telling!”

“I’m gonna tell her what you said!”

“Hey, you took mine, I’m telling!”

Even though these examples used the word ‘telling,’ they’re examples of ‘tattling to be hurtful,’ not ‘telling to be helpful or to get help.’ Strangely enough, figuring out difference between ‘tattling’ and ‘telling’ is not so much about looking at the words that we use. It’s more about looking at the reason we’re using them.

When we’re tattling, we might be enjoying the idea of someone else getting in trouble. We might think, “If my brother has to go to bed early, I’ll have the TV all to myself!” When we’re tattling, we might be thinking, “Hey, if she goes to the end of the line, then I’ll be at the front!” When we’re tattling, we might think, “He got me in trouble yesterday – now I’m gonna get him back!” When we’re tattling, it is really possible the other person did make a mistake – but, we’re probably thinking less about solving the problem and more about using our power in a way to put ourselves ahead and the other person down or behind.

It’s normal to feel like doing that sometimes; it’s normal to HAVE those feelings, but it’s not safe to let those feelings cause us to make hurtful choices. Telling information to others as a way to try to make other people unhappy is hurtful, just like hitting someone or biting someone is hurtful.

Telling to be helpful feels different inside than tattling does. When we’re telling, we usually feel like there’s a problem we can’t solve, and we want things to be better or to feel better. One kid told a grown up about a friend’s puppy whose collar was too loose because the friend liked to play with the collar even though she wasn’t supposed to. The kid told the adults not because she wanted her friend to get in trouble for playing with the collar, and not because she wanted to play with the puppy herself, but because she knew that if the collar was ever too loose, there was a chance the puppy could slip out of the collar and get hurt or get lost.

Another child told adults about a name-calling game between friends that was getting out of hand, not to get the kids in trouble but to stop them from hurting each other since the game had gone way too far, and they weren’t stopping themselves.

In both those situations, the name-calling friends and the kid with the puppy were angry at first at the kids who told in order to get help. After some time, though, they understood.

Telling when a child is playing in a busy street, or telling about roughhousing games getting too rough on the bus, or telling about touch and attention you do not like is NOT tattling. Remember that it’s never too late to tell about a problem, and even if someone gets upset because you told, and even if someone says you’re tattling or calls you a tattletale, if something is about safety, then your job is to tell and to keep telling until you get help.

Keep in mind, though, that lots of grown-ups can get confused about the difference between tattling and telling, so when a young person wants to get help from an adult, it’s wise to use a voice that’s low, clear, and calm: “Excuse me, I need help.” And if the adult says, “I’m tired of all this tattling!” …Well, try being patient for just a moment. Realize that the adult probably is ‘tired of all this tattling.’ Try taking a deep breath; try staying calm and saying, “It’s about safety. Please listen.”

Visit for more People Safety tips, and remember, in everything you do, stay safe, act wisely, and of course, believe in yourself!

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.