Tattling vs. Reporting – Helping Kids Understand the Difference

Graphic of sheet of paper with definitions for snitching and reporting

There’s a difference between tattling or snitching and reporting. When kids understand the difference, they are more likely to report unsafe situations and real trouble.

The Difference Between Tattling and Reporting

In early elementary school, snitching or tattling is common as kids learn to navigate rules and social dynamics. In these situations, the “snitcher” is usually trying to get someone in trouble, control another, or avoid blame. Often, no one is in danger of being physically hurt, and the situation could be solved without adult intervention with some conflict resolution skills.

By middle school, snitching has become socially unacceptable. Because of this stigma, older students may be afraid to report real trouble. Fear of being seen as a snitch peaks just as dangerous and inappropriate behaviors (bullying, sexual harassment, and threats of violence) are on the rise.

When Kids Understand the Difference, Schools are Safer

When kids understand the difference between snitching and reporting it helps them feel safe to report. This requires regular discussions at home and at school about what types of situations need to be reported. It’s also important to have a safe way for students to share, like Safe to Tell Colorado. This service allows students, families and community members to report concerns or threats anonymously.

In today’s world, all of us need to look out for each other. These efforts go a long way in helping our kids feel safe as well.

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Published by Jessica Speer, Author

Author and Advocate for Kids and Families

3 thoughts on “Tattling vs. Reporting – Helping Kids Understand the Difference

  1. Hi, I have some thoughts on this issue. While this was meant to help children understand which situations require the help of a trusted adult, and which situations they can handle on their own, I feel that this can be very helpful for adults. I am on the Autism Spectrum (my diagnosis used to be called Asperger Syndrome), and many people with Autism Spectrum Disorders or other challenges are very rigid in their understanding of how rules should be followed. I used to attend my county’s ARC program, back in 2013, and a lot of the adults who attended the program with me used to tell program staff about minor infractions. “He won’t let me have a slice of the pizza he brought with him.” “She said a bad word.” “I said hi to him, and he didn’t say hi back.” The program staff could have used this to teach some of the adults in the program about when to tell staff, and when to handle the situation themselves. If somebody tells an adult about a situation such as, “I overheard Jessica and Meghan talking about how they are planning on taking some of the most expensive items from the mall without paying,” the adult can say something such as, “I’m very glad you told me about this! If they do that, they can get in even more serious trouble than they are going to be in now.” If a child tells an adult about a minor incident, such as, “Trevor used up all of my perfume,” the adult can say, “and I can tell that you felt very sad and angry when Trevor used up all of your glitter glue, and we will buy you some more.” The adult can then ask the child (who told them about the minor incident, not the more serious violation) questions such as these.

    “Are you telling an adult about this because you are concerned about your own safety?”

    “Are you telling an adult about this because you are concerned about somebody else’s safety?”

    “Does it look like the other person/people will get in more serious trouble if you DO tell an adult, or if you DON’T tell an adult?”

    “Are you telling an adult about this because you are injured or sick?”

    “Are you telling an adult about this because you think somebody else might be injured or sick?”

    “Have you tried handling the situation on your own?”

    If the answer is yes, “have you been successful?”

    “Are there any alternatives?”

    Now, the reason I worded it as, “telling an adult,” instead of, “telling me,” is because I want children to understand that this criteria applies when telling ANY adult about something that happened or is happening, not just when telling that particular adult. The reason I added the question, “are there any alternatives,” is because if somebody takes the last of the ice cream flavor that you wanted, and refuses to let you have it, then instead of telling an adult, you can choose to either pick a different flavor, or not to have ice cream at all.

    1. Thank you so much for this important contribution to this post Leanne! I agree, these definitions can be helpful to adults as well. The questions you shared are an excellent way to help others learn how to navigate tricky situations.

      1. Hi Jessica, you are very welcome! It is too easy for adults to just tell children things like, “that’s snitching,” “don’t rat people out like that,” “people don’t like to be told on.” This, in turn, is likely to discourage children from reporting even the most serious problems in the future. On the other hand, it is also too easy for adults to just allow children to tell them about even the most minor infractions, which can lead problems with classmates, friends, siblings, and later, coworkers and bosses. This is why we need to teach children the difference between saying, “Chloe is playing with my toy cars without asking me first,” and saying, “Justin is running toward the road, and I am worried that he might get hit by a car.” If someone calls you a name, you can first try saying something like, “hey, Connor, please don’t call me names, because I don’t like it,” or, “you know, Josh, it hurts my feelings when people call me names, so please don’t do it again.” However, if you keep having to ask the person not to call you names, and they keep calling you names, that is when you need to tell an adult about what that person has been doing. “MacKenzie keeps calling me names, even though I have asked her to stop several times.”

Please share! I welcome your thougths and comments.

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