Link copied to clipboard

When Should You Tattle on Someone Else’s Kid?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Imagine that you see a middle-school child you know smoking behind the local convenience store. You don’t know the child’s parents all that well and you wonder if you should tell them what you saw.

Imagine that your own child complains that another kid in the neighborhood is picking on her, hitting her, snatching her stuff, and saying mean things. What do you do?

When should you tattle on someone else’s child? And if you tattle, how should you do it?

Of course, if a person is doing something really dangerous and the likelihood is that he or someone else is going to get seriously hurt, then everyone has a responsibility to intervene. This means that when you see someone – someone of any age – getting ready to dive into the shallow end of the pool you shout a warning. If you see an obviously intoxicated person getting into the driver’s seat, you call the police if you can’t stop her by other means. It makes no sense to stand idly by, thinking the person will learn a hard lesson and that you have no responsibility to change the lesson plan.

But most of the bad behavior we observe in other people’s children doesn’t require quite so immediate a response. We have time to consider what we want to say to someone’s parent and even if we want to say anything at all. So while you’re thinking, here are some key ideas to pay attention to.

Are Your Motivations Self-Centered? Are you secretly delighted to report that a perfect child – or a perfectly beastly child – is up to no good? Do you want in your heart of hearts to knock this insufferable child and her equally insufferable parent down from a pedestal? Or do you want to cement the notion that That Child belongs in juvenile detention – or afterschool detention at the very least? Will knocking down this child somehow elevate the status of your own?

Is The Behavior Part Of A Pattern? If you observe the problem behavior on more than one occasion, it might be more worthy of report than if you see something only once, especially if that once was part of an isolated event. An observation of breaking rudely into a line means more if it’s an everyday occurrence at the bus stop than it does if you only saw it once on a class field trip to the zoo.

Is The Behavior Serious? A one-time observation of shoplifting is more serious than a one-time observation of pushing and shoving. For some things, you don’t want to wait for a pattern to emerge. If the behavior is serious enough that you consider calling the police, then probably the parents want to know about it. Evaluating seriousness also includes considering the age of the child. Wrestling with an age mate when you’re six might less serious than getting into a brawl when you’re sixteen.

Would You Want To Know? If this were your child would you want to be told about this behavior? At what point on your own kid-behavior radar is something important enough you’d welcome finding out about it? There’s a line between “tattling” and filling someone in on something important.  Put yourself in the other parent’s shoes to help decide when to tell.

There’s not one easy answer to should you tell or not. But if you decide to talk to someone’s parent about what you’ve seen, be sensitive. The parent might know about this and not be very surprised. But your information might come as a total shock.  So say what you saw and that you’re pretty sure it was the person’s child and you thought the parent would like to know. That’s it. You shouldn’t say how awful this is or what the parent might do about it or what you’ll do the next time you see this.

You’re not the parent or the police. You’re the messenger.  Just deliver the message.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

share this
Follow Us

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.