Reflecting on Tattling
Versus Telling

Editor’s Note: This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Kidpower. See the full video on this podcast at People Safety Podcast from Kidpower at Kidpower teaches advocacy, boundary setting, and other personal safety skills for building happier lives and stronger relationships at

I saw this podcast recently and was struck by how difficult it can be to be a mindful parent. With work deadlines, mouths to feed, mortgages to pay, and sibling rivalry to negotiate, we don’t always have the presence of mind to carefully sort out when our kids are “tattling” versus “telling an adult to get help.” Our kids don’t always know the difference, either. It is considered uncool to ask for help from adults—most teens seek advice and support from their peers versus parents, teachers, and trusted adult friends. The first step in helping our children know the difference is to be clear about it ourselves, and rewarding kids who seek help for difficult situations goes a long way towards ensuring that they will go to the right people for help when they have a problem that should involve an adult’s input. We know the scary truth that our kids with hearing loss are at a greater risk for child abuse and neglect in all their ugly forms. Isn’t that all the more reason to learn how and what to listen for in our kids-- and arm them with the tools that will get a parent’s attention, fast. Here is an excerpt of the script from the podcast, directed toward children:

So, what’s the difference between tattling and telling? Understanding the difference is a big part of being safe, because telling to get help with problems is important, but tattling is hurtful, and it makes problems bigger. 

For kids and for grown-ups both, the word or the idea of ‘telling’ can get really tangled up in our minds with behaviors that we don’t like, things like whining, complaining, or people being mean, and that tangling can happen because lots of times, people say that they are ‘telling’ or that they are ‘going to tell.’ But, they are doing it in a way that’s hurtful, not helpful. They might say, “I am going to tell her what you said!” “Hey, you took mine, I’m telling!”

Even though these examples used the word ‘telling,’ they’re examples of ‘tattling to be hurtful,’ not ‘telling to be helpful or to get help …When we’re tattling, we might be enjoying the idea of someone else getting in trouble. We might think, “If my brother has to go to bed early, I’ll have the TV all to myself!” When we’re tattling, it is really possible the other person did make a mistake – but, we’re probably thinking less about solving the problem and more about using our power in a way to put ourselves ahead and the other person down or behind.

It’s normal to feel like doing that sometimes; it’s normal to HAVE those feelings, but it’s not safe to let those feelings cause us to make hurtful choices. Telling information to others as a way to try to make other people unhappy is hurtful, just like hitting someone is hurtful. 

“Telling to be helpful” feels different inside than tattling does. When we’re telling, we usually feel like there’s a problem we can’t solve, and we want things to be better or to feel better. One kid told a grown up about a friend’s puppy whose collar was too loose because the friend liked to play with the collar even though she wasn’t supposed to. The kid told the adult not because she wanted her friend to get in trouble for playing with the collar, and not because she wanted to play with the puppy herself, but because she knew that if the collar was ever too loose, there was a chance the puppy could slip out of the collar and get hurt or get lost. Another child told adults about a name-calling game between friends that was getting out of hand, not to get the kids in trouble but to stop them from hurting each other since the game had gone way too far, and they weren’t stopping themselves. 

In both those situations, the name-calling friends and the kid with the puppy were angry at first at the kids who told in order to get help. After some time, though, they understood. Telling when a child is playing in a busy street, or telling about roughhousing games getting too rough on the bus, or telling about touch and attention you do not like is NOT tattling. Remember that it’s never too late to tell about a problem, and even if someone gets upset because you told, and even if someone says you’re tattling or calls you a tattletale, if something is about safety, then your job is to tell and to keep telling until you get help. Keep in mind, though, that lots of grown-ups can get confused about the difference between tattling and telling, so when a young person wants to get help from an adult, it’s wise to use a voice that’s low, clear, and calm: “Excuse me, I need help.” And if the adult says, “I’m tired of all this tattling!” …Well, try being patient for just a moment. Realize that the adult probably is ‘tired of all this tattling.’ Try taking a deep breath; try staying calm and saying, “It’s about safety. Please listen.”

I loved the idea that not only could we help our kids discriminate between the two actions of tattling versus telling, we could arm them in advance to be able to really get an adult’s attention with the “safety” trump card (or whatever the attention-getting word that works best for your family or your classroom.) We can also help them discern in their own minds whether they were seeking to gain something or seeking to help. “Telling” is a skill that will help keep our kids safe, and it’s never wrong to tell. Thanks, Kidpower!

By Sara Kennedy, CO Families for Hands & Voices

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