Why children tattle (and when it’s okay)

(CLEVELAND CLINIC) – Every parent or teacher has, at one time or another, heard the familiar cry of, “I’m telling!” But is tattling a normal part of childhood? Or is it a problem in the making?

According to Kate Eshleman, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, for young children, tattling is an appropriate part of their development.

“As kids learn that it’s not appropriate to hit someone, they’re also not quite able to problem-solve by themselves, and so they reach out to the adults to make them aware of the situation,” she said.

Dr. Eshleman said sometimes, tattletale behavior is unknowingly reinforced by adults.

She said adults often don’t respond to the behavior of the child who is the subject of the tattling, but they do respond to the child who is lodging the complaint; and this can make it more likely the child will tattle again in the future.

During early childhood, Dr. Eshleman said tattling doesn’t have much of an impact on a child’s relationship with their peers.

But, as children get older, they get better at being able to problem-solve with their peers, and will no longer feel the need to involve an adult at every turn.

Dr. Eshleman said when children are very young, they are still learning there are different levels of ‘fair’ and that they may not always get everything their way. But, a child’s ability to tolerate what is perceived to be ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ increases over time.

And while it’s okay for parents to work with their children on curbing ‘tattletale’ behavior, at the same time, children need to know when it is appropriate to tell an adult about something.

“We want children to be prepared to know how to respond in a serious safety event,” said Dr. Eshleman. “Whether that’s somebody doing something to them, or if they see somebody else being harmed; we want them to know that those are appropriate things they should speak up about.”

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