Q: Help me manage the tattling in our home. We have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and every other sentence seems to be a form of tattling. “She hit me.” “He said a bad word.” “She’s not cleaning.” “He’s lying.” It’s so constant that I’ve resorted to telling them that I don’t care or that I don’t want to hear it, which I’m sure is not the right response. There are genuine tears involved in many cases. I don’t want them to think that I’m indifferent to their troubles, but I can’t arbitrate constantly. Any suggestions on how to respond and still accomplish whatever our goals are (cleaning up, playing nicely together, existing)?
A: Nothing gets under a parent’s skin like tattling. It is annoying, unproductive and seemingly endless. If you address the tattling, it’s like giving sunlight to a weed; the tattling grows and spreads. If you ignore the tattling, the children up the ante, becoming louder and angrier. It’s a lose-lose situation.
But some tattling is normal. To some extent, there is a natural competition between children in a house, and one of the ways it is expressed is through tattling. One child gains the parent’s favor and simultaneously gets the other child in trouble. Children see it as a useful tactic, and almost every child will tattle at some point. But chronic tattling means we must look at the children, and our parenting life, a bit differently.
I don’t know what is happening in your family. For instance, I don’t know if there are any stressors such as an illness, a move or a separation. Even good transitions can cause stress. I also don’t know whether your kids are experiencing any sleep issues, developmental problems or even food allergies. I mention this because even if one child has one of these issues, it can affect every sibling interaction and increase tattling. Take a look at the issues that may not seem to directly affect the tattling.
But an even deeper question is: What need are my children fulfilling when they tattle?
If I look at your kids’ ages, here are a couple of issues that jump out at me that you should consider:
1. If the kids are constantly monitoring each other (and telling on each other), they need more supervision. These ages in particular love to help and be of use, but they also need strong direction and leadership. They are not old enough to work out disagreements on their own. They need a caring adult steering them along. Left to their own devices, even the most well-behaved children will dissolve into disagreements and tattling.
2. Chronic tattling tells me that your kids are conditioned to getting your attention. Kids’ most essential need is to feel close to their caretakers, and they will try to make this happen at any cost. If this means whining and tattling and getting in trouble, so be it. Children are not mature enough to take a moment and tell themselves, “Listen, Billy. This isn’t working for you. Get it together.” Preschoolers are too immature to reflect on their own emotions and behavior and then change. In essence, even though everyone is miserable, the children are connecting to you when they tattle.
3. When you say that you don’t care or you walk away, this most likely causes panic in your children. Mom or Dad walking away in anger leads to panic, which leads to more insecurity, which leads to more whining and tattling. Ignoring them or angrily walking away is making the tattling worse.
4. Getting to the bottom of who did what is almost always a recipe for disaster. First, you never get the true story. And when we mire ourselves in the details, we are fulfilling the fundamental need that tattling is seeking: belonging and attention.
What do you do?
• Stop getting to the bottom of the disputes, doling out punishment or trying to hear both sides of the story.
• Immediately separate the children and put a stop to whatever has caused the tattling.
• Make sure the children are properly supervised, especially during the times the tattling occurs the most. Not sure when that is? Keep a journal or type it into a notes app on your phone; you may see a pattern.
• Make sure children this age get proper exercise, food, water and rest.
• Above all, begin one or both of these routines in your home, stat: family meetings and special time. Family meetings are when everyone in the family takes turns sharing what they are grateful for or talks about the good and bad parts of their day. Don’t worry if your children’s answers seem all over the place. What you are practicing is respectful listening and eye contact. Similarly, special time (for this age) requires you to get on the ground, on their level, and play with them. Time it (10 minutes will do) and keep strong eye contact. This connection, as simple as it sounds, is profound in how it fills up a child. If your children feel connected to you positively, their need to connect to you negatively goes down. Will it be perfect and stop all the tattling? No, but it can create a dramatic difference.
As long as you shift this from a tattling problem to a connection problem, you will find your answer. Good luck.