It’s Not All Mary Poppins


I don’t tend to get a lot of tattling in the daycare. This is not because the children are such kind and giving types, nor even my extraordinarily well-honed child-rearing techniques. It’s a developmental thing. It’s about Rules. Tattlers understand about Rules. Generally, children are four, or very close, before they become aware of (and noxiously devoted to) Rules. Whereas two- and three-year-olds are quite capable of understanding that they are not to jump on the couch, it takes a four-year-old to grasp that this is A Rule. Rules can be applied to others: ever wondered why your previously delightful three-year-old has suddenly become so damned bossy? And, aha! They can tell on people who break A Rule. Hence the tattling.

George, at three and a half, has just begun to experiment with it. It isn’t getting him very far, and I know that, unrewarded, it will fade. Liam, though, is five-almost-six, and a tremendous tattle-tale. It must be paying off somewhere in his life. A dozen times a day he races to me with urgent news of someone or other’s petty misdemeanor. My response is always the same, a low-key acknowledgement of his proclamations, and a direction to go back and play. I make a point of NOT going to check on whatever he’s tattled about. This works well with children in whom tattling is not well-established. It lessens the likelihood of it becoming entrenched.

However, when a child comes with the tattling firmly established, direct communication can’t be beat. The best way to approach a child in the Rules-and-Tattling stage? I have some Rules for Tattling!! Brilliant, no??

Rules for Tattling:

If someone is bleeding, tell me.
If someone is in imminent danger, tell me.
Otherwise, don’t.

We had the chance to try this out on Friday afternoon. Liam came charging over to me, the desperate importance of his message and its earth-shattering urgency broadcast by every quiver of his stocky little body.

“Mary!! Arthur’s taking the couch-cushions off the couch!!!!”

I respond in as bored a tone as I can manage – which is pretty convincing, because I am bored, bored out of my mind, with all the tattling… “Liam. Is anyone bleeding?”


“Is anyone in danger?”


“No one’s going to get hurt?”

“Ah, no.”

“Then you’re just tattling, and I don’t need to know.”

With each question and answer, the dissatisfaction and astonishment increases in his face and voice. Am I not going to do anything? Am truly I not going to Enforce a Rule?? (This isn’t merely a power thing: it really does bug them when rules are flouted.) He tries once more to get me to see the horror of the situation.

“But Arthur’s taking the couch cushions off!!”

“Liam. Liam, listen to me. Liam: I. Don’t. Care.”

Oops. I was doing just fine until then. “I don’t care” was a tactical error, and I knew it the instant it fell from my weary lips. It was entertaining, though, to watch Liam wrestle with this idea. His expressive face was a riot of conflict: astonishment, dismay, horror, exasperation, and then increasingly, wonderment, a sense of possibility, and enthusiasm. Suddenly he reached his conclusion, the only sane and natural one when presented with an inert adult who’d just said she didn’t care, and erupted, his fists in the air, bellowing out as he races down the hall to the couch:



July 25, 2005 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, George, Liam, manners, Mischief, socializing


  1. These are words of wisdom that I will file away in my cache of “been there, done that, so don’t you do it, too” files.

    You must care, but not too much. Got it.

    Comment by ieatcrayonz | July 25, 2005 | Reply

  2. I nip tattling in the bud when I punish not only the transgressor but the tattler as well.

    That way the Rules still get enforced, but the tattling stops, too.

    (The punishment? Usually something quite minor but annoying to the tattler.)

    Comment by misfit | July 25, 2005 | Reply

  3. I will try the tattling rule on my 4 yr old who delights in telling tales on her 3 siblings.


    Comment by Si | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  4. Crayonz: that rule is bigger than you know just yet! I wrote a post on a related subject, Risk-Taking back in April. One day I’ll have to do a post on Earnest Mommies and Daddies – the bane of my existence.

    Misfit: In my experience, that’s had limited success. The tattler gets punished, yes, but for some it’s well worth a punishement to have the power of getting Mom to be their Enforcer. So the reward for them is more significant than the punishment. I prefer to either ignore, or deal with the misdemeanor when the tattler isn’t looking. (Because unless it’s bleeding or dangerous, it just doesn’t need to be dealt with immediately.)

    Si: your four year old, huh? Right on schedule!

    Comment by Mary P. | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  5. Mary, you must have been spying on me. My standard answer to either tattling or howls of protest is to ask if there’s any blood or dead bodies? Should the answer be “no”, then I tell them it’s not a problem and that they should cry quietly.

    I am the epitomy of caring! 🙂

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  6. You wrote about tattling….I’m telling!!!

    I usually try and get the child to fix the situation. If is is telling, it usually means he or she wants you to intervene – and usually get the other child in trouble. So if someone is pulling off the cushions, I’ll go throught the “is there blood” rigamorole, and then I’ll add “What would you do to stop it?” And in the process of the conversation, the child is so confused as to why you are having this conversation that the tattling seems moot. LOL

    Comment by Heather | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  7. Simon: one day I will also do a post about the concept of “Benign Neglect”, a highly effective (and wholly laudable) parenting technique in which Earnest Mommies and Daddies are completely deficient. Sounds like you have it in spades!

    Heather: I love this. I will certainly add it to my repertoire of responses to the problem. I’ve used something similar for years when presented with the child who, when faced with mild physical aggression, merely yips and then passively looks to me to rescue them. (“If you don’t like what she’s doing, TELL her.” etc.) I have no idea why I’d not thought to apply it to other forms of tattling. Good idea!

    Comment by Mary P. | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  8. Thank you Mary for giving me something to use in the next year or two when my older daughter discovers tattling.

    I am compiling quite a list of things I am looking forward to using as my girls grow older. I can’t WAIT until one of my kids rolls her eyes at me. She will be given some rubber gloves and a toothbrush and some Comet and will clean the bathroom. I am also excited at the thought of one of the kids telling me they are bored…

    Comment by Misfit Hausfrau | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  9. My children have learned this lesson so well that should any of their friends threaten to utter those words in my presence, they warn them off immediately: “Agh! Don’t say that in front of my mother!”

    Comment by Mary P. | July 26, 2005 | Reply

  10. “You being bored is making me bored.”
    “You can always clean your room.”
    “I don’t want to hear about it.”
    “That reminds me, go clean the cat litter.”
    “Nice to meet you, Bored, I’m Mary.”
    “Stare at the wall for a while, then when you stop the world will seem much more entertaining.”
    “Great! Sweep the floor!”

    Just a list of things I’ve heard from my mother. Any wonder we children warn our friends?

    Comment by Haley | July 27, 2005 | Reply

  11. Thanks for the personal touch, there, Haley. Meantime, I’m still laughing… I’d forgotten all about the “Nice to meet you” one! (Always said in a very chipper tone of voice, as I recall.) I like it even better now it’s fresh.

    I have never believed that one of my roles as mother is my children’s personal entertainer. I guess it shows, huh?

    Comment by Mary P. | July 27, 2005 | Reply

  12. Child: “I’m bored.”

    Me: “I can GIVE you something to do, but you won’t like it.”

    Then the child vacates the room and I don’t see him/her for the rest of the day.

    (and Re: the tattling: my system seemed to work for my kids, who hated the injustice of being punished when they were–in their eyes–merely enforcing the Rules. I only had to do it a couple of times for each of them. They don’t tattle any more! And I am truly a devotee of benign neglect. We should get together and write a book!)

    Comment by misfit | July 27, 2005 | Reply

  13. Tattling is not in the dictionary here on the UnHeard of McDonald Islands, but I think I get the meaning. We call it “dobbing”. You’re right, it can be tiresome. But if someone had tattled early on the London bombers ….

    Comment by robmcj | August 2, 2005 | Reply

  14. Hello, Rob;

    Well, there’s tattling and there’s tattling, hence the rules. And, of course, if they’d been following my rules, someone would have told somebody: Bleeding? Er, not yet, but likely. Imminent danger? Yes, yes, that’d be it.

    Your islands are UnHeard of, all right. I looked up Heard and McDonald, and can’t find ’em. Of course, I’m using The Canadian Oxford School Atlas, 3rd edition. Published 1973. A lot’s happened since then. So it could just be that they weren’t labelled as such 32 years ago, or the dictionary isn’t that precise, or you’re making it up.

    Thanks for dropping by, though, no matter where you’re typing from.

    Comment by Mary P. | August 2, 2005 | Reply

  15. […] of physical harm. It’s snot, is all. And wait! As I run through those objections, I see my description of tattling. Oh, now I get it. This mummy has just tattled on me. Tattled on me to me, but still. Tattling is […]

    Pingback by Weird vs Weird « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | May 8, 2012 | Reply

  16. […] have strategies for tattling, of course. Strategies which will work, in time, so long as I have the persistence (which I do) and […]

    Pingback by Tattling Strategy « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | February 19, 2013 | Reply

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