It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Tattling Strategy

Tattling and whining, the two banes of life with toddlers. Worse than power struggles over veggies and naps, worse than dawdling and contrariness, worse than snot, spit, puke and shit.

Of those two, tattling and whining, for me at any rate, whining is worse. Now, I loathe tattling. I loathe it almost as much as I loathe whining, but on balance, there’s just something about that off-key, see-saw, drawn-out tone of voice that just grates, you know? Gets right under the skin. So hard, nigh impossible, to tune out. (Which is THE WHOLE POINT of whining, of course.)

I have a tattler in the ranks. Ugh. All toddlers tattle at one point or another, but some kids? Some have an absolute passion for it. It’s their damned vocation. That’s what I’ve got these days. A dedicated, passionate tattler.

The only thing worse than whining is tatting done in a whine. Guess what? My current tattler is one of those. (Making her, as Hannah suggests, a whinitter? a tattlewhinge?) I think I’m going to adopt “tattlewhinge”. So evocative.

And these days, the tattling-whinging is constant. Absolutely constant.

“Grace is sitting on the beeeeh-ench! Daniel hit meeee-eee! Poppy won’t shaaaay-yare! He’s too cloooo-ooose! She’s too faaa-aar! They won’t… they will… they aren’t… they are…”

Whine, tattle, whine, tattle. All.Day.Long.

Aside: Now, some tattling is appropriate, of course. I just don’t tend to hear it from this child, but when I do, you can BE SURE that I am warmly appreciative!

“Rosie is standing on the table? Oh, no! That is dangerous! Good for you for telling me, so we can keep Rosie safe! Good job!”

I have strategies for tattling, of course. Strategies which will work, in time, so long as I have the persistence (which I do) and the patience (less bountiful some days) to see it through. Still, I can’t stop thinking about it. Not obsessing! I swear. Thinking. Mulling it over. Running scenarios through my mind. (Scenarios which do not include duct tape, I swear.) Musing. Cogitating.

Okay. Maybe obsessing, just a bit. But from much thinking comes actual insight! The insight came as I was ranting venting obsessing talking it over with Emma.

“She’s not trying to solve a problem, she’s just trying to get someone else in trouble, or use me to get herself some vengeance. I refuse to be her Enforcer.”

Suddenly I heard what I was saying: “She’s not trying to solve a problem.” I heard, and I had my lightbulb moment. When you have a problem, what should your response be? Why, to solve it, of course. To fix it. Make it better.

So, with that tiny bit of insight, I can reframe my response to a tattle into a clean, methodical, logical set of steps. It goes like this:

Kid tattles.

1. I ask “What’s the problem?”
Note: this is not said in a sarcastic tone. The question is quite sincere. Let’s get to the root of the problem — let’s identify the problem that needs to be fixed. Toddlers are often surprisingly poor at this. They know how they feel about what’s happened — NO LIKE IT!!! GRR! — they usually know what they want done in response — GIVE IT TO ME! NOW! — but they often can’t identify what event caused their feelings. And they very, very rarely manage to understand that the other party has a similar and equally valid set of needs.

So the first step is to identify the problem. Which, even if they can identify it, is often not quite as they see it. (The problem, stupid Mary, is that HE WON’T SHARE!!! No, actually, my little dumpling of sweetness, the problem is that he won’t abdicate the toy the second you demand it.) The problem, from my dispassionate adult perspective, is that you both have equally valid, conflicting desires.

I try to be sincere and kind about the problem, from their perspective. “You really, really want that toy! But you know what? She really, really wants that toy, too! And you can’t both play with it at the same time.” (We’ll assume it’s a toy that doesn’t lend itself to co-play.) “That’s a big problem!” Because, really, from their perspective of self-focus, immature empathy capabilities, and general life inexperience, it is a big problem.

All right. Having identified the problem, we go on to step two. “That’s a big problem,” I say,

2. “How can you solve the problem?”

The first proposed solution will be obvious: “He has to GIVE IT TO ME!” (Duh.)
“Yes,” says kindly party-pooping Mary, “but if we do that, you will be happy, but he will be sad. We need to try to fix this so you’re both happy.”

We continue, with me trying to draw it out of them, rather than impose it upon them. Sometimes this step is done with all children involved, sometimes with just the tattler. It depends on what the precipitating CRISIS!!!! was. (I treat their event as a Big Problem when I discuss it with them out of respect for their developmental phase. This does not mean I actually believe it’s a Big Problem. Because WHO CARES if the pink shoelace is beside the book or on top of it? Me?? I think not.)

2b. What happens if that doesn’t work?
This is preparing them for the future, when (as a result of my diligent and skilled assistance!) they are solving problems BEFORE they come tattling to me. Or even — and oh, my heart beats a little faster at the thought — INSTEAD of coming tattling to me. [Insert giggle of sheer giddiness.] So what if they come up with a solution, and it doesn’t work? They tried something, and there’s still a problem?

Because these are toddlers here. Even if, by some sudden burst of maturity, one of ’em actually manages a constructive, calm, co-operative response to a conflict/problem, that is no guarantee at all that the other kid will be equally sensible. In fact, odds make it strongly unlikely. So. If their wonderful fix-it idea doesn’t work? THEN they can come to me for help.

However, I expect them to try to fix it before they ask me to help.

So. When the child has come up with a solution that seems viable, I

3. See that it happens.
I don’t implement the solution. I watch and support the implementation, stepping in only when absolutely essential.

There. That’s the initial response. Emphasis on identifying shared problem, and the expectation that they try to fix it on their own.

When we’ve been through this enough times that the drill is understood, I retreat even further from involvement, hand over even more of the process to the child.

Kid Tattles, Phase Two.

1. What have you done to solve the problem?
“You know you are supposed to try to fix the problem first, before you talk to me about it. What have you tried?” Again, not angrily. Just asking. Because of course they have tried to fix it!!!

If they have tried something, they get much praise for this. Then I help them brainstorm another response. I will intervene if their solution was perfectly appropriate and the real problem is that the other child is acting like a two-year-old. (It’s a chronic issue with two-year-olds…)

If the response is “nothing”, I instruct the child to think of some ideas to fix it, and get back to me. I often look puzzled as I say it. “You haven’t tried anything yet?

If the response continues to be “nothing” many repetitions later, well after the expectation is 100% established, the tattler will be In Trouble for not trying to solve their own problems. Now I am no longer puzzled, but annoyed.

“You know you are to try to solve your problems. You know the rule: Try to fix it first! Off you go to the quiet stair and think about how to solve this.”

I like it. It gives ownership of the problem to the child, it teaches them some clear steps for resolution, it has a trajectory of decreasing adult involvment/increasing child autonomy.

February 19, 2013 - Posted by | Peeve me, socializing, whining | ,


  1. Wow, that is the master class approach to eliminating tattlewhinging. Impressive. I don’t think my crew are quite ready for this yet… I’m going to spend more time working on the “did you tell her to stop? and is she still doing it now? no? then yay, it worked!” approach first. Then, once they’ve got that notion down, I may try this as a way to eventually stop the tattling to me altogether.

    Let us know how it goes.

    Yes, it’s quite possible that the method you cite is best for twos, and this one for threes and ups. We’ll have to see! Because oh, tattling is sooooo tedious. Lordy.

    Comment by Hannah | February 19, 2013 | Reply

  2. I might need to share this with every kindergarten teacher out there. They’re plenty old enough to solve problems. Best solutions I’ve heard was a teacher who had them write down their tattles and put them in a box “for her to read later” and one who had them go tell it to a mascot stuffed animal they kept in the class. This teaches them instead of just getting the adult out of the loop.

    Yes, the adult stays in the loop for a while, but the goal is to have the adult out of the loop … and the children able to analyze and problem-solve their social hiccups.

    Comment by My Kids Mom | February 19, 2013 | Reply

  3. I will file this away for future use. I began responding to “I’m thirsty” with “I’m tall” a few weeks ago and now we have about 80% “May I have a drink please” and 20% “I’m thirsty” “I’m tall” “Oh… may I have a drink please.”

    Heh. I like it. I greet “I’m thirsty!” with “Nice to meet you, Thirsty. I’m Mary.” Blink, blink, blink… “Oh… may I have a drink of water, please?” I enjoy it, and, generally, so do they.

    Comment by rayne of terror | February 19, 2013 | Reply

  4. Have you read books by the people at Love & Logic? Because this is the solution tree that they recommend for many many problems.

    No, I haven’t. Here I thought I’d been so clever and original!

    Comment by Laura | February 19, 2013 | Reply

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