A parent wrote to the Parent Toolkit team asking them about her challenge in understanding how best to support her five-year-old. This parent poses important questions about how to react to a young child “telling” on the mistakes of other children but her question also involves helping her child deal with exclusion and hurtful behaviors and her role with and support of her child’s teacher and the school’s rules. Check it out!

Good Afternoon,

I am a parent of a 5-year-old boy. I wanted to ask the advice of the panel in regards to “tattle telling”. My son’s school has taught him that he is not supposed to tattle tell and that “there is a difference between tattle telling and telling”. My son has been through some bad experiences (having snacks taken away by other students, being excluded, and now had a child pee on his shoe). My son continues to hold the belief that he should not tattle tell because he will get people in trouble and will then not have any friends. I am concerned that this has opened the door to my son being bullied.

My question is should children his age be taught the “difference between tattle telling and telling”? And is there truly a difference at this age?

Thank you,


My Response:

First of all, your child is right on schedule developmentally. “Tattle-telling” is a hallmark of the preschool and kindergarten age child attempting to develop self-regulation. Though the adult caregiver or teacher understandably does not want to be approached with every problem that arises in a classroom, the child is expressing his developmental need to understand and uphold the rules. This process takes time and lots of practice exercising his burgeoning self-control skills. Children first learn about the rules by enforcing them in others. Only then can they internalize and apply those rules to themselves. So take this experience as evidence that your child is working hard on learning the rules of school, a critical readiness factor for the elementary years. Read the full response on the Parent Toolkit site including specific ideas on what parents can do.


2 Comments on “Telling or “Tattle-telling”… Is There a Difference? On NBC Parent Toolkit”

  1. Hi, when we think a child might be tattling, ideally we would start off by validating their feelings. “I can tell it bothered you when Sarah took a cupcake after I told you guys not to, because you know that you are supposed to do what you are told, and when somebody else does things you have been taught not to do, it is very upsetting, isn’t it.” We should then ask the child questions like these.

    “Are you telling on someone because you are concerned about your own safety?”

    “Are you telling on someone because you are concerned about somebody else’s safety?”

    “Is this person going to get into more serious trouble if you DO tell on them, or if you DON’T tell on them?”

    “Are you injured or sick?”

    “Are you concerned that someone else might be injured or sick?”

    “Have you tried handling the situation on your own?” (other variants of this question could be, “have you told that person to stop?” “How long has this been happening?” “How many times has said person done that?”)

    If the answer is yes, ” have you been successful?” (another variant of this question might me, “did that person stop when you told them to?”)

    “Are there any better alternatives?”

    “Do you think that person did it on purpose, or do you think it was an accident?”

    Now, I’m not saying that we should teach children not to tattle, but I also do not want kids to inform an adult about minor incidents. If a child is constantly reporting minor infractions to an adult, it is likely to lead to loss of friendships, as well as problems with siblings or other children in their household, fellow students, teachers, and later, coworkers and bosses. On the other hand, if a child witnesses a serious incident, and doesn’t inform an adult about it, serious injury or other serious issues can result. This is why we need to teach children the difference between saying, “Josh called me a mean name,” and saying, “Dylan keeps calling me mean names, even though I have asked him to stop.” Or saying, “Jessica is playing video games, when she is supposed to be doing her homework,” and saying, “Noelle is throwing rocks at the neighbor’s dog.”

    • Oh Leanne, I LOVE Your reflections! Validating feelings as a first step is key. But you are so right, you want to empower your children with relationship and problem-solving skills so that they can learn to work it out themselves. They NEED that practice. If we step in every time (not only will we lose patience), but also we take away their chance to build those invaluable skills. I love this so much I’m wondering if I could use it with your permission in a blog. Maybe build on it a little with the skills we can proactively build so that we don’t have to intervene each time. Let me know if you are interested. This is fantastic. I love the language you offer! THANK YOU!!!! Best, Jennifer, Founder, CPCK

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