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Teaching children when to speak up and when not to can be one of the most confusing lessons they learn in their daily life. We live in a time when it is critical for children to stand up for their safety.


Children need to have the courage to tell an adult when they or other children are bullied, hurt or in danger. On the other hand asking children to be diligent in this way can open the door to excessive reporting about the minor and annoying behaviors of others, which is tattling. How can they learn the difference? It takes a purposeful plan to make this work.

The first step is to communicate the reasons a child should tell an adult. The situations would include physical injury, safety concerns, bullying concerns, abuse and any situation that causes harm. There are a myriad of examples including being a witness to a dangerous situation, getting help for a child who is hurt, bleeding, vomiting or having been told about a dangerous situation.

Tattling, on the other hand, is done to get another person in trouble, and children should not practice this. Tattling occurs because children do not always know how to handle situations that require them to communicate their feelings. Tattling also occurs when children want attention for being “helpful”. Many situations that occur at school and at home fall into this category. Just a few of the many examples are:

“She took my toy.”
“He was mean to me.”
“She broke the rule.”
“He made a face at me.”
“She didn’t do her homework.”
“He said a bad word.”

The difference between telling and tattling may appear clear to an adult, but a child needs to hear this message many times. Examples, role play and repeated discussions will need to take place before this skill is mastered.

Penelope-HeadacheIt is always helpful to use relatable stories when teaching a social skill. One book that addresses the topic is Penelope’s Headache, the story of a young child who cannot tell the difference between tattling and telling. She wants to do what her teacher taught her, but is confused to the point that her head aches. Penelope and her mom work through several scenarios that require the reader, along with Penelope, to decide what she should do.

Told in rhyme, this story clearly addresses situations where Penelope should tell an adult and situations where she should not. The book includes two activities that can be done in school or at home to rehearse when to tell.

There are many ways to practice the difference between tattling and telling. Children need to know how to assess situations by asking themselves five important questions.

“Is someone hurt?”
“Is someone sick?”
“Is someone fighting?”
“Is someone in danger?”
“Is someone unsafe?”

These are situations that should guide a child to get the help of an adult. Practice with examples that may happen in your home.

Elementary age children need to learn how to compromise with their friends and how to resolve minor conflicts. Parents know that there are times when the adult needs to get involved in a child’s conflict, but most of the time children need the strategies to handle situations. One question that a child should ask herself is, “Can I solve this by myself?”

If we teach our children the difference between tattling and telling early and often, along with strategies to resolve conflicts, they will have the tools they need to be successful communicators.