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What to say when kids tell tales on each other

By Michael Grosse

It’s a jungle out there. At least it is in many families.

Families can be noisy, competitive and sometimes operate on the survival of the fittest principal (or, in many families, the biggest). They function according to some very primal laws. They are hierarchical by nature, with children constantly working and adjusting their pecking order.

And conflict-free they are not, which is why the family jungle teaches kids a great deal about coping with conflict, relationships and disputes at school and in the workplace beyond.

One type of behaviour that can send parents over the edge is when one child ‘tells a tale’ on a sibling, particularly when a dispute or disagreement occurs.

parents and kids

‘Telling tales’ on a sibling seems to be part of family-life. It is funny how children will dob in their siblings at home, when they wouldn’t dream of dobbing in their friends at school for similar behaviours.  

The message for parents is fairly clear. Avoid responding automatically to children’s tales and recognise that children use ‘tales’ to involve parents in disputes that are really should belong to children. The trouble is most of us are as predictable as washing machine cycles so kids can usually predict our responses.

What to do when kids tell tales?

It is useful to acknowledge their feelings but not to become too involved in an issue that should belong to them.  Avoid being the White Knight repeatedly rescuing victims, Judge Judy (or Josh) who passes judgement on one or either of the perpetrators or the Concerned Cop who always tries to keep the peace. The key is to place the onus back on kids to resolve their own disputes. This is a BIG FAMILY strategy. If you had six or eight kids you would be too busy to respond to children’s tales of the less than serious variety.

Here are some responses to try when a child comes to you with tale or story about the dastardly, terrible things that his or her sibling did or said to them:

1. The Disaster Scale: “Where does this fit on the disaster scale from 1 to 10?”
Kids can easily blow issues out of proportion so that a child taking a siblings’ sock is suddenly two rungs above an axe murderer and losing socks is suddenly the worst thing that can happen. The Disaster Scale helps kids gain a little perspective.

2. Invite them to solve the issue themselves: “Can you handle this yourself? Is this something you can deal with?” You’ll never know if you don’t give them a go! Put the issue back on the kids to resolve. It’s not that you don’t want to help but really some things don’t need your help!

3. The shock tactic: “What would you like me to do about this?” This is my favourite response as it puts the onus back on to the child. Be prepared for surprises though as some kids just want you to lock their sibling in a tiny room and for you to throw away the key!

4. Problem-ownership: “Does this problem really involve you?” Some children just love to get involved in disputes that don’t involve them but they love to get a certain ‘sibling into trouble’. Don’t be drawn into such disputes or else you will soon be doing the ‘sibling dance’ with them, with the ‘tell taler’ taking the lead.

5. Put them in the same boat: “I’ll listen to both of you when you can tell me the same story.” This is the first step in the conflict resolution cycle. If two children have a tale of woe get them to agree on the story they tell. This is usually enough to resolve the dispute.

6. The pen and paper approach: “Can you write down what happened?" Give one child and pen and the other a piece of paper and invite them to write down exactly what happened. A considered written response will be taken very seriously by parents.

We all have our own responses to kids’ annoying behaviours. Some are learned from our own family and some we just develop all by ourselves. It’s good sometimes to come out of ‘left field’ with the things you say and do. It helps keep life interesting as well as keep your kids on their toes. Spontaneity and curiosity are healthy qualities to promote in families. Responding to annoying, repetitive tales gives you a chance to be a little spontaneous and creative. Just make sure you maintain your children’s dignity and yours in the process.

By Michael Grose © 2007

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