5 reasons why children tell tales


Dr Richard C. Woolfson
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Preschoolers love telling tales, either by running to the teacher (if the incident happens in school) or to their parents (if the incident happens at home). Shouts of “I’m telling on you” regularly ring out when children play together. The difficulty is teaching your child the difference between tattling and sharing necessary information.

Here are some reasons why children this age like to tell tales:

1. Moral sense Having reached school age, a child usually has a well-developed sense of right and wrong. This doesn’t mean he always follows the rules, but it does mean he is aware of them and that they shouldn’t be broken.

2. Approval Six-year-olds love adult approval from parents, teachers and carers. And what better way to curry favour with a grown-up, thinks the child, than by pointing out what someone else has done wrong.

3. Revenge A throwaway remark, or exclusion from a game can upset a child who may feel rejected and left out. Telling tales on the child who upset him is a great mechanism for gaining revenge.

4. Stability Sometimes telling tales to a grown-up is the only solution available to a five-year-old child who wants, say, another child to stop disrupting his play. He is likely to have tried other ways but they have failed.

5. Attention A child who feels unable to get attention from an adult may tell tales in order to achieve his goal. He thinks that the adults might ignore him personally if they are too busy, but that they are unlikely to ignore his tattle.

Related: 10 good habits to teach your preschooler

The problem you face is knowing how to react to tale telling. After all, you might want to ignore your child if he constantly comes running to you with tattle, and yet you don’t want to risk discouraging him from sharing necessary information with you.

That’s why it is important to listen when your child tells you: “Mum, you should see what he’s doing…” This is the only way you can establish the underlying motivation for his behaviour. Hear what your child has to say, decide on its significance, and try to identify the reason for his need to tell you this particular piece of information.

The following examples illustrate how you could handle tale-telling, in a balanced manner: 

If you think your child just wants attention, give him a cuddle, tell him you will have time to chat to him later, and say nothing about the tale he just told. Suggest that he returns to his play situation.

If you think he is seeking revenge on another child who has upset him, reassure him that he has nothing to worry, make a neutral comment to indicate you have listened, and then continue with what you were doing before.

If you think he is trying to get your approval, make no comment about what he said, and instead talk about something he did that pleased you. This reduces your child’s need to tell tales.

If you think he is concerned because a rule has been broken, explain that you are glad he knows right from wrong and that what the other child has done really is naughty. Add that you are pleased he doesn’t behave that way.

If you think he does this because he is bored and wants a bit of excitement in his life, ignore his tales. Look at him when he talks to you, say nothing, and return to your previous activity.

If you think he has shared something important with you, take appropriate action to sort out his concern. Thank him for telling you, but point out that he should try to avoid telling unnecessary tales. 

Related: How to help your child make friends


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