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A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The problem

Few things are as aggravating to parents as the constant back and forth tattling that goes on among siblings.

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"Dad, Travis said my nose makes me look like a horse."

"Dad, Melinda made a peanut butter and jelly mess in the kitchen and she didn't clean it up."

"Dad, Travis stole a dollar out of your wallet."

Tattling delivers a one-two punch of unpleasantness. It drags you into their bickering – never fun. And it presents the tattler in an unfavorable light – everybody knows that tattletales are on the upper rungs of those who should be despised. This is your kid we're talking about here.

It's a divisive bad habit. It invariably makes for genuine dislike between siblings, and directly works against any loyalty they may feel toward each other. Worse – and what makes it so unattractive – is that it curries favour at the expense of another. A morally bereft human activity.

What not to do

Don't enter into the fray. Definitely do not say this: "Travis, come here. Did you say your sister's nose makes her look like a horse?"

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"Dad, Melinda is such a liar."

Tattlers love that. They get their sibling in trouble and they get to play the role of the good child. Even if Travis defends himself, for a parent to get involved in a tattling war only feeds the tattling.

What to do instead

Ignore the whole thing. The one exception is if there is threat of real physical harm. Otherwise, stay clear.

Try phrases that bounce it back to the tattler and give them nothing in the process.

"That must make you mad."

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Or – maybe best of all – try repeating what they said. "Your brother said your nose makes you look like a horse."

You are hearing them, but you're not planning to do anything.

"Aren't you going to punish him?"

I recommend that you treat statements from one sibling telling on the other as inadmissible evidence. Even if you believe it was said, the accused criminal does not get in trouble. This is frustrating to the accuser.

"But you have to do something."

Not really.

This is a good practice because it can significantly reduce or even eliminate tattling – there is no longer a purpose.

"My dad is so mean. When I tell on Travis he doesn't do anything. What's even the point?"

It can be surprisingly effective.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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