How to respond to preschool tattling

sibling, squabble, tattletale
The goal is to raise kids who are able to talk through conflicts or get help with problem solving when they need it.

Many parents put more energy into scolding about tattling than they do about teasing, pushing or generally disobeying. They worry that their children will be weakened in their ability to handle other children if adults intervene. They worry that their children will become annoying, holier-than-thou members of the family or playgroup. They want their children to be independent, likeable, able to walk away or handle a problem on their own.

Constantly being interrupted by reports of others’ misdeeds can drive you nuts. Part of it is the American aversion to snitches. Part of it is unpleasant memories of junior high or high school encounters with officious peers who told us what to do or siblings who got us in trouble. But each time I read about teenagers who become violent with peers after years of being picked on, I worry that they were never encouraged to ask for help. Each time a tragedy occurs in an adolescent’s life and it turns out that peers knew something was going on, that lines were being crossed, I worry that these young people were encouraged to “mind their own business.”

How do we raise children who follow rules and can be counted on to develop an inner voice and impulse control, who feel safe with other children and who are able to talk through conflicts or get help with problem solving when they need it? How do we raise children who know right from wrong and stand up for right at the same time they are happy, healthy, accepted members of their peer groups? One element is the way we respond to preschool tattling.

During the preschool years, we begin to teach social skills, accountability and appropriate use of adults and teachers. If we say “ignore it” when children are 3 and 4, we cannot be surprised when, at 15, they see others using drugs or brutally teasing others and mind their own business or walk away.

We need to let children talk to us. We need to figure out the most helpful response and use our importance in their lives to teach. As children leave the preschool years, we want to trust them and their good judgment. We want them to have good feelings about themselves and positive self-talk that helps them feel smart and competent when they meet criticism.

When adults intervene in preschool squabbles, we give children a model for problem solving with each other on equal terms, and let them know that help is available. You should not rush in to fix things, or make assumptions about the offender. It is not helpful to either child to have you go over and reprimand the offender. Following are some examples of appropriate adult intervention.

Insults and name calling

Sara comes to you in tears. “Johnny says I’m not 4!” she announces.

You may be tempted to dismiss the problem, but this is a grave insult to someone who has just had a birthday but looks small. Sara should be encouraged to refute the accusation to you.

Ask, “Are you 4?” By saying “yes,” Sara knows what is true about herself. Back she goes to refute Johnny, or play with someone else.

What if Johnny had called Sara stupid?

Ask Sara, “Are you stupid?” then add, “I think you are interesting and intelligent. Sounds like you and Johnny are having trouble playing together.”

Sometimes children may need you to stand nearby and say the words for them. Parents worry that the offender will just go underground and their intervention will makes things worse, but this is not true for this age.

Sometimes, after you articulate the problem to your child, it emerges that there was provocation for the remark and both children need help to speak their feelings and solve the problem. Maybe the children simply need help sharing the shovel or the space, or they need a break from each other.

Children who tease need help finding another way to play, or another child to play with. Sometimes children are just bored or cannot figure out how to play with more than one child at a time. They need ideas or materials that three children can do together. Sometimes they are imitating an older sibling or situation they have experienced. They need reassurance that they are not allowed to tease and that no one else will be allowed to tease them, either.

Reporting a rule violation

When a child comes to tell you Mary is jumping on the bed, or eating a bug, your first response should be to say, “Thank you, I’m really glad you know what the rule is.”

It is not always possible to go correct the other child, but you can reinforce your child for knowing the rule. It is hard for young children to follow all the behavior constraints we ask of them when others are violating the pattern. Tattling is really an attempt to confirm the order of the world that helps them control their own impulses.

You also want to teach children about the word “emergency.” Jumping on the bed is one problem; tasting pills from the medicine cabinet is another. Children must know that it’s okay to tell you if someone could get hurt.

At the same time, you need not tolerate constant interruptions or repeated complaints. When children leave play to tell you something while you are talking on the phone or in the middle of something — and it is not an emergency — teach them to put a hand on your shoulder and wait.

If two children come more than once to report infractions or teasing, it means a pattern is developing. A change of location or activity is called for. Don’t keep sending them back until someone gets hurt. You may want to keep one of the children near you if conflict or rule breaking is continuing.

During the preschool years, adults should supervise children by sight and sound at all times. This allows you to intervene and prevent a lot of the problem social behavior before it happens and respond appropriately to your children when they tell you that it has.