The Five Types of Tattle-Tales

Summer is here! And with it, mosquito bites, scraped knees, and an outbreak in tattle-taling. Being home all day with half-a-dozen kids,  I have noticed there are five (yes, five!) different types of tattle-tales. Not all tattles are created equally. Here’s what they are and what we can do about them:

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1. The Whiny Tattle – Alas, most of us are familiar with the whiny tattle-tale. Mommy, brother stepped on my toe! Mommy, Billy looked at me funny. Whiny tattle-tales are often produced by children who are overly sensitive, overly tired, or overly coddled. These kids  are too easily offended by the normal day-to-day bumps that occur when children interact. Small, even imaginary vexations made by siblings who are not doing any real harm will give the whiny child an excuse to tattle. What to do? Begin by making sure your kids get enough sleep. Help them to toughen up by teaching them not to complain about minor annoyances. When your kids do come to you with a whiny tattle, reassure them that the offense they are complaining about is not such a big deal. Your reply: He stepped on your toe? I’m sorry that hurt. Brother probably didn’t do it on purpose. You’ll be okay.

2. The Prosecutor’s Tattle – This is the tattle of a child who is seeking justice. Mommy, All-Star took two scoops of ice cream, and I only got one! Children around the age of eight and nine have a keen sense of  justice. They want everything to be fair and square, especially from their own point of view. We need to teach them that while fairness is good and important, fair treatment does not necessarily mean equal treatment. For example, we would not give a baby the same amount of food as a teenage boy. In a family, fair treatment is based on need and maturity. It means we do our best to give each child what he needs, recognizing that each child has different needs at different times. So: All-Star just mowed the lawn, and that made him really hot and hungry. That’s why he gets two scoops. When you start mowing the lawn, you’ll get two scoops, too.

Watch out, though. If a child is constantly insisting on “fair” treatment or complaining about siblings getting special privileges, he might be feeling under-appreciated. A logical explanation of needs-based treatment vs. equal treatment will not satisfy his hunger for “justice”. What he really wants is love and affirmation.

3. The Take-my-side TattleMom, last time I bought candy, I gave All-Star two pieces. Now he’s only giving me one piece of his candy! This may seem like a Prosecutor’s Tattle at first, but there is a subtle difference. The Prosecutor’s Tattle is a complaint about the apparent lack of fairness in a parent’s decision. In a Take-my-side Tattle, there is a dispute between two siblings and one sibling is looking for the parent to be his ally.

This is an opportunity to you to encourage your kids to problem solve. With children around six or seven years old, you will probably need to help them work out their differences. With kids eight and older, encourage them to work out the dispute on their own. You don’t need to be dragged into each little argument.  Your reply: You two know how to find a fair solution.  Both of you try to be fair and generous, and you will work it out.

4. The Venter’s Tattle – Sometimes kids are frustrated with their siblings, and they just need to vent. Mom, Feisty  is driving me crazy! He keeps using my basketball without permission! Venters are not necessarily looking for you to take action.  They just need to let out their feelings. These children want a sympathetic ear and a word of encouragement, and then they’ll feel better.  Say something like: I know that’s really frustrating. I would find that annoying, too. But I think you know what to do about it. 

5. The Schemer’s Tattle – This is, by far, the worst type of tattling. With this type, the tattler provokes a sibling in an unrelenting and nauseating manner until the sibling loses his temper.  The angry sibling retaliates by hitting, scratching, or throwing and breaking toys in such a way that parental involvement is warranted. Then the tattler comes running to you, screaming in pain or crying in a distraught manner. As he tells his side of the story in a blubbering voice, he over-emphasizes the sibling’s misdemeanor but fails to mention his own part in the fight. And you, as a conscientious parent, have no choice but to reprimand and possibly punish the provoked sibling for losing his temper and inflicting harm.

In this case, one thing you can do is have the tattler share the punishment/consequence with the sibling who lost his temper. However, sometimes these tattlers don’t care if they are punished along with their siblings; the vindictive pleasure of seeing their siblings get in trouble is worth the time-out or lost privilege. So, don’t hold court. Don’t scold the sibling who lost his cool in front of the tattler or other kids. No one likes to be scolded or punished in public. It’s humiliating and often leads to denial and resentment rather than contrition. Once the angry sibling has cooled down, talk to him in private. You can even keep the punishment (if one is necessary) a secret between the two of you, so the tattler does not get the satisfaction of revenge.   Then, correct the tattler for instigating the argument, whether by word, deed, or both. A child who starts a fight by being provocative is usually more at fault than the child who retaliates out of frustration.

It’s important to note that the Schemer’s Tattle is often passive aggressive behavior. For some reason the tattler wants to see his sibling get into trouble.  We need to find out what is causing the passive aggressive behavior (anger, jealousy, resentment, feelings of low self-esteem, any of these coupled with boredom) and try to remedy it. With younger kids, some good quality one-on-one time might do the trick. With older kids, a good heart-to-heart talk will give you insight into what is on his mind and will give the child a chance to let out pent-up feelings.

Avoid encouraging the tattler

Generally tattle-tales are not a big deal; they’re more of an annoyance. Except for the schemer’s tattle,  we as parents will generally not need to chastise or reprimand the child who is being tattled on.  In fact, doing so will only encourage more tattling.

Sometimes, however, we must step up to the role of arbitrator and protector. Usually this is when a child is in danger or has experienced physical harm, or when there is constant name-calling or bullying that puts a child’s self-confidence at risk.

When you do feel the need to correct the child who is being tattled on, do so in a matter-of-fact, laid back manner. Better yet, do it in private so you don’t give the tattler the pleasure of seeing the other child get corrected. For example:

Child: Mommy! Sparky didn’t brush his teeth last night.

Mom: I’m glad you’re so concerned about his teeth. I’ll talk to him about it later. I hope you’re responsible about brushing your teeth every night, are you?

Later, when the tattler is not around, Mom: Sparky, did you brush your teeth last night? Be sure you do it every night. You don’t want to get cavities.

Here are some other things you can do to break the habit of tattling:

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Remind your  children again and again that tattling makes other kids dislike them. If they want to have friends or have fun with their siblings, they need to stop tattle-taling. Work on getting your kids to speak charitably about others and to hold their tongues when they want to say mean things about other kids, even if those things are true.

Let your children know when tattle-taling is justifiable and when it’s not.  It’s okay for a child to tattle-tale if he is genuinely concerned about the well-being or safety of the child being told on.  For example, if a sibling is playing with fire. If, however,  he is trying to get his own way or wants to get a sibling in trouble, tattle-taling is unacceptable. A child’s intent makes all the difference, and he needs to be made aware of it.

When a child tattles, ask him, “Are you tattling?  Are you really concerned about your sibling, or are you trying to get him in trouble?” Some habitual tattlers (not the schemers) are often oblivious to the fact that they are throwing their siblings under the bus.

Last but certainly not least, bring your kids to frequent confession. Making an examination of conscience, being contrite for one’s sins, and resolving not to sin again are powerful ways of overcoming the vices that lead to sin. More importantly, the graces of the sacrament will, over time, have a sanctifying effect on your children’s souls and on their characters.

And finally, a word of encouragement: If your children’s bickering and tattle-taling is driving you crazy, keep in mind that tattle-taling peaks around eight or nine and begins to fizzle out by middle-school. At least, that’s been my experience. The more mature my kids become, the less drama they produce, and the better they get along. Believe me, there’s hope!

In the meantime, may God give us the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon.

Want more thoughts on Siblings? See these posts:

Surviving Sibling Squabbling

What Kids can learn from Sibling Squabbling

Happy summer!

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