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3 Reasons Preschoolers Tattle and 4 Ideas to Make It Stop

Imagine you're starting a brand new job and feeling a little bit nervous. Your boss has a reputation for high expectations and you're just getting to know her. The co-worker on your right lets the boss know when you make a mistake so she can deal with it right away. The co-worker on your left asks you if you want to go over things together when she notices something the boss might not like. The co-worker behind you ignores the entire process and sticks to their own business.

Which co-worker is the most helpful to you? To your boss?

I've spent many years in the preschool classroom and many years studying young children and tattling can be difficult to handle. Maybe it gets under our skin so much because we've been in situations where "backstabbing" becomes subtly ingrained in the work culture. No one wants to raise a child who behaves like that in the workplace.

But young children tattle often and they really want us to take action. It can be annoying but our response is important. Is it ever too early to develop good emotional habits in the place of tattling? In my opinion, no, and here's why:

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

So what's the best way to deal with tattling in preschoolers? It's important to look at the child's emotional development to see why it's happening. Here are 3 common reasons young children tattle.

  1. They don’t know what else to do. They know they’ve been wronged in some way but they also know that it’s not right to simply do it back.

  2. They may want to gain respect in our eyes for knowing that the action is wrong.

  3. They may want to get attention and possibly sympathy from us.

One thing I like to be clear about is the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Empathy is a deep understanding which produces the ability to keep another’s perspective in mind while going after what one wants without harming anyone else and the ability to work effectively with others to reach shared goals without giving up one's own. -Nanci J. Bradley-

The New Empathy as defined by me, Nanci J Bradley, is understanding plus action. In these crucial times, we’d be remiss if we forgot about the action part.

So my preferred response is to show the tattler empathy rather than sympathy. We don’t want to side with them or punish the other child immediately. We want to help them solve their problem with the least amount of intervention possible in order for them to be successful. In early childhood, we call that scaffolding. (Vygotsky 1896-1934)

Based on theories of development, and 43 years of classroom experience, here are my top 3 ideas for dealing with tattling.

  1. In order to acknowledge the child’s power, listen to them. If you can sit down and talk with them or hold their hand and get down to their level. Remember, this is the child who knows limits and is willing to comply. We don’t want them to feel victimized in any way.

  2. Try saying, “Oh they did? And you already learned not to do that, didn’t you? Hmmm.."

  3. Ask a question that counts. “How do you think we could help them learn that?"

  4. Together, you can decide what’s best and act on it. You might ask the tattler if they already talked to the doer. But don't leave it at that. Remember they asked you for help.

I used to work with a teacher who responded quickly to any tattling with, “Well, did you talk to them about it?” It seemed like a pretty good answer but it became routine and lost its meaning after a while.

I discovered the 3 ideas above after reading The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Pable Friere. Although it was written long ago, it still rings true when it comes to teaching others. We need to leave any feelings of superiority aside in order to be effective. Children learn through observation.

One more thing I want to mention about tattling is that we want to encourage kids to embrace what’s right. Erik Erikson explains why in his stages of development when he talks about Initiative vs. Guilt

Stage 3: Initiative Versus Guilt

Erikson’s third stage of psychosocial development occurs during preschool, between the ages of three and five years.

At this point in our psychosocial development – when conflict occurs between initiative and guilt – we learn to assert ourselves and typically begin to direct play and social interactions.

To our parents, our behavior may seem vigorous, overly assertive, or even aggressive, and yet we are exploring our interpersonal skills.

If overly restricted from such exploration – either by parental control or through increased criticism – we can develop a sense of guilt. Similarly, while constant questioning in this stage can be tiring at times, if it is curtailed by caregivers, we may see ourselves as a nuisance, inhibiting our interactions with others.

And yet, if we are successful in stage three, we learn to feel capable, secure, and able to use our initiative.

If we fail, we may suffer guilt and self-doubt and become less likely to lead.

Success in stage three is vital to building the virtue of purpose as opposed to feelings of guilt. However, a balance between initiative and guilt remains key to developing a healthy mindset.

If you want to know what to do about hitting, etc. you can get a free copy of my 22-page slideshow, How To Get Your Kids To Listen Without Yelling Or time-Outs, when you join us in our quest to change the world through early childhood education.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Will Rock The World!


Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton

Freire, Paulo, and Bergman Myra Ramos. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017,

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.

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