10 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Your Kid Tattling vs Telling

kids fighting
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If someone asked you what your most worn hat was as a parent, what would you say? Quick, quick! Don’t think too much. I’m looking for the first answer that pops into your head.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you said something like cook or chauffeur or venture capitalist. But if I had to bet money on what the most common answer would be, I’d bet my chips on referee. And that’s because, as parents, especially parents of multiple children, one of the roles we play most often is the role of adjudicator.

We’re forever mediating over disputes. Big ones; small ones; legitimate ones; bogus ones. And without a Nanny Cam to prove guilt or innocence, you’re almost always screwed in terms of rendering fair and impartial decisions. That’s because your kids can always throw the ol’ you-weren’t-there-so-you-don’t-know line at you. And when that one comes out, the trial is pretty much over before it starts because there’s no comeback for it.

Since the dawn of time, kids, especially siblings, have told on each other. It’s just a fact. And we all know it. It’s in the DNA. Even the ones with the best relationships bicker every once in a while. And while the origin of squabbling may have its roots in caves and lean tos, it hasn’t changed that much since homo became erectus.

kids fighting
Credit: Shutterstock

Think about it, in the beginning, in prehistoric times, brothers and sisters probably argued over who got to sleep closest to the fire pit or who got to wear the foofier pelt. Fast forward 100,000 years and they’re still fighting over territory and possessions, only now it’s who gets the bedroom closest to the bathroom and who stole whose North Face.

Now, as an only child, I can’t relate to sibling rivalry. Which, unfortunately for me, is the argument that both my kids leverage against me whenever I’m playing referee. They say I just don’t understand what having an annoying sister or brother is like. Someone who’s constantly pushing your buttons, giving up secrets, and stealing your stuff (oh, wait, sorry, I mean “borrowing” your stuff). And because of my lack of sibling experience, I’m always at a disadvantage when I’m trying to settle an argument.

So out of necessity, I’ve learned a few nifty tricks that can help you differentiate between Telling and Tattling. And lemme tell you, knowing how to tell the difference between the two can be a lifesaver when everyone’s looking to you to fairly resolve a dispute. Because let’s be honest, very few of us out there have formal law enforcement training, so we’ve got to take advantage of every shortcut we can to ensure that we can effectively keep the peace.

That being said, here are a few nuggets I’ve acquired from having two daughters who like to get up in each other’s grill. I mean, they love each other and all, but I think they love hanging each other out to dry even more. I almost think it’s become a sport to them. So here’s some ammo that I think might help you fight the fight.

kids fighting
Credit: Shutterstock

How to tell when your child is telling:

  1. They’re trying to keep themselves safe.
  2. They’re concerned about someone else’s safety.
  3. The situation they’ve come to you with is critical or urgent.
  4. They’re concerned that someone may be hurt or in real danger.
  5. They need an adult to help solve the problem.

How to tell when your child is tattling:

  1. They want to get someone else in trouble or avoid owning the blame.
  2. They may have something to gain, like attention or popularity.
  3. No one is hurt or in danger.
  4. What they’re telling you is not an important problem and can be solved without an adult.
  5. They threaten to tell on someone in an attempt to control that person.

The bottom line here is that you’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open to exactly what your kids are telling you and, more importantly, learn to ask the right questions.

It’s also important to understand what motivates kids to throw each other under the bus all the time. They’re kids and they’re learning. It’s as simple as that. They’re trying to build their moral infrastructure and they’re not always sure which pieces go where. At least not in the beginning.

So along with the good listening and good detective skills, we all need to drizzle a whole lotta patience into the mix, too. Because, as bizarre as this may sound, the tattling and telling does evolve. I promise. Eventually, most of them get it and the fights at least become more authentic and justified. And if they don’t, well, then there’s always juvie.

Lisa Sugarman

Lisa Sugarman lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at lisasugarman.com. Or, find them on LittleThings.com, BeingAMom.life, GrownandFlown.com, Mamalode, More Content Now, and Care.com. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is and Untying Parent Anxiety: 18 Myths That Have You in Knots—And How to Get Free available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at select bookstores.

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