For those of us on the eastern seaboard, Nor’easter Nemo brought life as we know it to a screeching halt. Home-bound days with nowhere to go (even the post office is closed). The pristine beauty of 3 feet of snow, the hush of a world covered in crystalline white broken only by:
"Mommm! He hit me." "She touched me." "He won’t let me have one." "She called me a baby / dummy / widget / mismatch / Rambo / copycat / liar / cheater / princess / shorty / giant …" Ah, home-bound children. And the call of the tattler, heard in cozy homes throughout the land. Let’s get straight on the definition of tattling, first, and then turn to what to do.
Tattling is the reporting of misdeeds for the purpose of getting the misdeed doer in trouble. It is different from telling, defined by bringing an adult onboard to get help with a difficult situation. Make sure you understand this distinction, and that your children do, too. It’s okay to tell when something dangerous is happening, when you (or someone else) are getting hurt (really hurt, not just inconvenienced or annoyed), when you need help figuring out what to do. Virtually everything else is tattling, and it’s not okay to tattle.
You can tell your children it’s not okay to tattle, but the only way for them to truly get the message is to back that up with action. Here’s how:
- Define telling versus tattling (see above).
- Give some hypothetical examples and ask your children to label them as telling or tattling, to make sure they understand the difference.
- When a child reports a sibling’s misdeed, ask: is that telling or tattling?
- If it’s tattling (your child is trying to get you to side with her, wants you to get her sibling to stop doing something unpleasant, is trying to get her sibling in trouble), remind your child that tattling isn’t okay. But – and this is an important but – don’t leave it at that.
- Ask your child if he has ideas about how to handle the situation himself. If he does, fine – your involvement is over. If not, ask if he’d like to tell you, instead. Do not simply launch in with suggestions. Your child will still be in tattling mode and thus not receptive. He needs to shift, first, to problem-solving mode, which begins by telling you he needs a hand. "Mom! Jenna’s clicking her tongue at me. Make her stop!" becomes "Jenna’s clicking her tongue. I can’t even read."
- After your child has framed the situation as a tell, rather than a tattle, pose questions designed to help your child figure out what to do. Do not tell your child what to do, and do not intervene with the sibling on your child’s behalf. Instead, have a discussion. Ask: what are your choices? Help your child think through what is likely to happen if she does X or Y or Z. Be realistic, if your child decides she will ignore an annoying behavior, ask how she’s going to do that. Help her anticipate what her sibling is likely to do (e.g., escalate) and how she can handle that. Pose questions that will help her to consider various angles (Will it be easier to ignore your sister if you stay in the family room or if you go into your room?) and to think outside the box. Do not tell your child what to do, and do not intervene with the sibling on your child’s behalf (I know I said that before, but it bears repeating)
- Be dogged. Your children need to experience again and again (and again) that you will provide help with problem-solving (what they can do to manage the situation) but you will not take sides and you will not intervene.
- Be prepared to be accused of not caring, not being fair, not loving your child. Don’t get pulled into this. Your child isn’t looking for a treatise on fairness or reminders about how much you love him; he’s looking for an ally in his fight against his sibling and if you step into that role, you will be pulled in over and over again. So if your child says, “That’s not fair!” “Or you don’t care!” stay calm. Say, "This isn’t about fairness (or whether or not I care), it’s about tattling and telling." Be empathic, "I know this is different from what we used to do. I’m ready to talk if you want some help figuring out what to do." And if your child escalates, move into limit-setting mode (the 1-2-3:Magic system is one of the best)
- Expect to spend more time dealing with petty squabbles then you used to. It takes longer to help a child problem-solve than it does to say, "Leave him alone" or "That’s it, no more TV." But you are teaching valuable life lessons in patience, negotiation (between siblings), and problem-solving. And eventually these winter days will no longer be interrupted by the call of the tattler, but instead to shrieks and giggles of children having fun together.