Tattling vs Telling


As we work with increasingly younger kids to educate them about the responsible use of technology, we find it extremely important to discuss how they should respond to being cyberbullied. Central to this conversation is covering the difference between “tattling” and “telling.” Perhaps you are extremely familiar with this distinction – but if not, read on. We really need elementary, middle, and even high school youth to understand that we as adults totally “get” that they don’t want to be labeled as narcs, or rats, or tattletales, or whatever the preferred derogatory term is. We understand. We know that teens are hesitant to come to adults for help in part because they are concerned that word will get out that they couldn’t handle the harassment or mistreatment and snitched on the cyberbully. But, we want all youth to realize that it is okay to get help. No one should have to deal with someone else inflicting emotional or psychological pain on them. If you have been the target of cyberbullying, you can’t dismiss it – it affects you and it would affect me. It’s real, and your feelings matter, and you don’t need to always try to suck it up. You want it to stop. If you could get the bully to stop, this wouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps you have a tied, but they just won’t stop. And this is where we as adults can help. But only if we know what is going on.

Teens must very clearly understand how dissimilar “tattling” and “telling” are. *Tattling* is when you are intentionally trying to get another student in trouble for something that they did which, honestly, doesn’t really bother you. *Telling* is completely different, and involves going to an adult and informing them so they know “what’s up” – any immoral or unethical or dangerous or destructive or hateful or threatening behavior that has really affected you (or someone else) on some level. Maybe your feelings have been hurt pretty badly. Maybe you feel scared for your own safety. Maybe you have been completely humiliated. Maybe people are saying stuff that is completely or even partially untrue – and it is ruining your reputation. Again, if you could make the problem go away on your own, this wouldn’t be an issue. But sometimes, you just can’t. And so you have got to tell – or inform – an adult.

Mostly, we as adults don’t want youth to just feel like they have to “take it” and just be an emotional or psychological punching bag for someone else. We want them to feel empowered to 1) acknowledge that what is being done to them is not right, and 2) get help. Hopefully, the adults to whom they go to will first validate the child’s feelings and then calmly and rationally work with that child to come to a mutually-agreeable response plan without flying off the handle. The worst possible thing is to respond in a way that makes the situation worse for the victim and convinces them (and everyone they tell) that the best response is to suffer silently because talking to an adult about the situation will just backfire.

Finally, you may be an adult who is constantly dealing with “tattling” and find yourself naturally hesitant to believe the story of the child in front of you. Take your time in assessing the facts and determining whether meaningful mistreatment is taking place. It very well could be, and you don’t want to regret trivializing harm that is reported to you. Finally, if you are a young person and are really needing the adult you approach to believe you, emphasize to them that you understand the difference between tattling and telling – and need for them to take you seriously. It sounds so basic, but sometimes that is what it takes for some adults to pick up on the gravity of the situation and be compelled to action.


  1. In this part of the world we call it "grassing". It is a big part of teen culture and is often also part of the behaviour in some our City's communities.

    I think that schools have gone a long way in creating and supporting this in that they often have very lose ideas around confidentiality and also can discourage tale telling from an early age. This, combined with an ineffective approach to dealing with relationship issues, then perhaps it's no surprise that young people are reluctant to tell.

    Let's not put the pressure on them until we can prove to them that any information that is supplied will be treated with rigorous confidentiality and that effective responses will be developed and used by adults when presented with these negative behaviours

  2. Great information Sameer, thanks.

    I am currently reading your’s & Justin's paper on Cyberbullying: an exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. So far it is right on the money as far as what I need to know for the paper I am writing about the adolescent brain and modern technology. I just read (p.149) a short excerpt from the 17 year old girl: "Bullying online is terrible because it affects the mind more than the body. It makes me feel so annoyed that people can harm others over a computer. People can say things online to make people more scared than if they were being physically threatened. People feel more vulnerable online than they would elsewhere. Bullying online is really bad because it is mental bullying which is sometimes worse then physical bullying, and can cause people to do stupid things. It makes me angry."

    It was a thought provoking piece she wrote; entirely emphasizing the emotional factor of cyberbullying. We, as adults and professionals, hopefully knowing more about the adolescent brain and how the developmental process continues into their 20's, should be more intuitive when dealing with them. There is no manual for rearing children and I believe that most adults are afraid to ask for help.

    It is during adolescent brain development that cognitive development occurs; youth develop their thinking and reasoning skills. They move from concrete thinking to more complex thinking processes, also known as formal logical operations, which includes abstract thinking. There have been 5 areas that have been identified for thinking. (1) reasoning / problem solving; (2) decision making / hypothetical situations; (3) processing information / efficiency. (4) expertise / use of experience; and (5) moral reasoning / social cognition. All of these areas move the adolescent from the prior mentioned concrete thinking (childhood thinking), to the more complex, analytical thinking. These areas need development, which happens over time, so the adolescent becomes a thoughtful adult who is able to think beyond himself/herself and become a successful part of a community.

    Each adolescent progresses at their own speed. This is how they develop their view of the world. Adults can help to build the sort of thinking needed, first and foremost by not solving the problem for them, but by supporting them through the process, and staying open minded to change. If more adults would put aside their expectations and judgments, adolescents may be more favorable to asking for help and seeking the guidance they need.

  3. (link defunct)
    This is a website I found that I think parents of young teenagers should look at. I see that a lot of people have commented saying that parents should check cell phone messages for sexting and inappropriate talk. But if their kids are using language like this then I don't think parents could catch what was really going on. I'm only 20 years old and I didn't know most of the acronyms in this article, so I'm assuming most parents would look right past something like ASL meaning age sex and location. Also their are a number of acronyms to say that a parent is around like PAL or parents are listening.

  4. With the technology of the new smart phones, there is no reason for someone to do any type of real research on anything. In our parents generation, if you had a question about something you would have to go to a library, read a book and learn about what you want to know. In our generation if you want to know something you can just type your question in to google. While I do think google is an incredible tool which I use very often, I sometimes wonder if the things I research are actually sticking like they would if I took the time out to do some research the old way. I have to imagine that reading an entire book or at least a chapter on something would stick better with you apposed to finding the exact answer in one sentence on a google search.

  5. Parents are not going to be able to catch everything their kids are doing. That is why parenting begins when the child is born. Waiting until the teenage years is too late to start talking about (and expecting a child to respond) the dangers of online bullying. Parents need to teach, model, and expect appropriate behaviors everyday they are with their child(ren). The difficulty I see at times is the 15 year-old student that already has a two year-old child. How can we expect a 15 year-old to teach, model, and expect appropriate behaviors when they are just learning the behaviors themselves.

    As a teacher, there is more expected of me to teach these behaviors to the children that have not received these lessons from their parents (like that previously mentioned two year-old). I don't mind teaching these expectations, in fact, I believe it makes me a better parent.

  6. Since I currently teach fourth grade "tattling" versus "telling" is a huge topic for me. I know of teachers who have put a stuffed animal in the corner of their room so if a child has a tattle they can tell the stuffed animal. I think the essential part of getting kids to understand the difference between tattling and telling is to educate the kids consistently from the first time they are in school. We use the idea or reporting rather than telling. If someone is getting hurt or bullied and a kid tells on the person doing it that is reporting. If they are trying to get someone in trouble I generally approach that by asking them the question, "What are you trying to accomplish by telling me this?" That usually makes most of the tattlers realize they are wrong.

    Relating this to cyber bullying is a little harder. Since the kids of the world have a bunch of personal accounts online we have no way to know what is going on unless the kid being bullied allows us access to their account. It also can make the cyber bullying harder to deal with since it is outside of school hours that it generally takes place. As educators, if a kid brings a case of cyber bullying to us, we need to treat it just like we would a bullying case in the school. Depending on the severity of the offense, we may also need to get outside law enforcement involved in the issue.

    Again, I think the big thing here is just teaching the kids the responsible use of technology early on in their education program. If no one ever sets limitations for what is okay online and what isn't the kids will struggle knowing the difference too. Another important aspect for educators is not to ignore cyber bullying. Since the world is so technologically advanced we need to start dealing with this as we would any other behavior issue in the school.

  7. Hugh

    Thank you for the website of acronyms. We need to outsmart our kids/students. My 16 year old does not have texting on his cell phone. I am so…….enormously relieved that he doesn't after I scanned the list of acronyms. Shocking!

    I wonder with this list of acronyms out in cyber space now, if it will give others ideas.

    I happen to be a teacher and I strongly agree that education is the key. Teaching kids appropriate uses of technology early even before they are old enough to have personal technology devices, perhaps it should start in preschool!!!!!!! There are very young elementary school children with their own phones already.

    With the addition of cell phones in the hands of students, now we have to make room among the core curriculum to teach safe use of technology. Facilitating a task force of people from parents, community members, and school personnell for the purpose of educating families and creating cyberbullying prevention/response plans might be a way to canvas whole communities with the message that cyberbullying will not be tolerated. I would love to hear what/if communities are teaming up against this negative attach on our precious children's emotional well being.

  8. I have noticed with my own children and their significant others ages 17-25, that they are willing to communicate text messages, they are unwilling to discuss in person. When this happened with myself, I confronted the child in person and they were ashamed of their behavior. If children and young adults have poor sense of moral integrity when communicating, thus cyberbullying, the issue is to create a sense of awareness that the behavior is not ok and to teach children to not respond or engage in that type of behavior. Since most children do not have the ability to confront cyberbullying, then it would require them to "tell" someone that is able address the issue. Telling is for the greater good where as tattling is for personal gain. I think the best way to combat this moral delima is to educate/role model children in morals and ethics and create a focus in communities, families and schools on building self-confidence, self-esteem and self-assuredness. When a people are OK with who they are as a person, they do not feel threatened or as threatened by others making attacks against them and can make better choices. Policing my childs actions as a parent is my job, however catching the child doing the act and punishing is less likely to prevent it from happening again than educating and setting expectations of exceptable behaviors in the first place.

    Thanks for the acronyms

  9. I like the idea of the bear in a corner of the classroom for Tattling! Kids need to know that it is a GOOD thing to talk to adults. Building positive relationships with adults is important. We need more character education in our schools. The best way to do this is by kids teaching kids. Last year I had a group of high school kids go to our elementary school and present to the 4th & 5th graders about what it means to be a responsible digital citizen and what should be done when people are not being responsible users of media. It was more powerful coming from "Big" kids then it could have been coming from ANY adult.

  10. Making the connection between” tattling”vs“telling” and cyber bulling is complicated. Indeed teens are hesitant to speak up about cyber bullying, especially if they don’t feel comfortable with the adult they must speak to. As a teacher in a high school I feel it is important to connect with kids so that they will feel comfortable about taking about these types of issues. Students need to know that they are safe and that if they speak to an adult that something is going to be done about it. Also teens must trust the adult that they are speaking with about these issues. Teens will be allowing the adult to look through their personal accounts and messages for instances of cyber bullying. This can be very uncomfortable for them so they need to be assured that they are doing the right thing. Teens that come forward should know that they are not alone and by stepping up and handling the situation by seeking the proper help; they may be preventing others from being cyber bullied. Schools must be pro active on educating staff, students and community on cyber bulling

  11. Sameer –

    Thanks for taking the time to discuss the difference between tattling and telling. You are right on about the fact that students just don't feel comfortable telling an adult sometimes. With the flip side of this being educators often getting annoyed over the same small percent of students who are constantly tattling. As a teacher and someone who aspires to be a future principal, I realize that a lot of time can go into listening to tattlers and tellers. I want to hear the tellers but do not want to spend an inordinate amount of time with tattlers either. I feel that understanding the difference and communicating that difference with students and teachers will help build a better environment where important telling is heard.

    Sameer, Justin, and Fellow Bloggers-

    What are your thoughts, ideas, and feedback on anonymous ways of reporting cyber-bullying issues? I have seen/heard of schools using drop boxes, texting to a local number, etc. What validity do you give to these anonymous inputs? Other ideas of making this work in the school?

    Thank you.

  12. Sameer, thank you for focusing on the difference between tattling and telling or reporting as I often call it. DM is correct. It begins with parenting. But what is good parenting in the 21st century? The traditional sit down family style meals are nearly non-existent with fast food and wireless service. Do parents know how to provide the problem solving skills in a society that has problems arising faster than they can download new apps? Are parents able to model positive/appropriate decision making skills as they change lanes on a four lane? Do parents know how to represent themselves morally and ethically in our world's melting pot of heritages? Are parents equipped with the expertise to communicate in our multi-faceted, technologically savy environments? Do we allow for processing of information or are we creating processing deficits because we need to hurry up so we can slow down? As a parent I honestly can say I don't feel equipped, but I try. It requires education. It is important to provide education for not only students and staff, but parents also. Communities are taking on that responsibility through their schools, medical facilities and non-profit organizations. It is important to provide on-going education and support for parents.

    Jeff B summarized tattling vs. telling perfectly. 'Telling is for the greater good where as tattling is for personal gain.' Explicitly teaching children from early on not only how to communicate verbally and physically in a constructive manner, but also how to confidently and appropriately stand up for themselves is crucial to their success as a member in our communities. Communication skills not only need to be modeled, they need to be taught explicitly. What did your parents say to you when you received a gift from someone? "What do you say?" And if you didn't know what to say they would prompt you. "Thank you for the gift." Bullying, especially cyberbullying, is so new to our societies that adults themselves need to be educated as to what to look for, listen to, and what to say when a bullying situation has been reported. Bullying is such a vicious cycle that adults need to be the stopping point where students can trust in the help they are seeking. Not only do students need to be educated and feel empowered to stop bullying/cyberbullying, adults do too.

  13. I think this is about giving kids multiple strategies to solving problems. The conversation of what tattling vs. telling is very important to have with our children and students. They need to know the difference between the two and need to feel comfortable telling an adult if they truly feel bullied. Another conversation that needs to happen revolves around what strategies kids can use on their own without getting an adult involved. Often times, a bully will show his/her true colors when there is no one else around or when he/she believes that their peers will side with him/her. As soon as an adult intervenes, the bully can turn to an "Eddie Haskel" and the bullying behavior can disappear. Bullies are best thwarted when their peers publicly denounce the bully's behavior and side with the child being bullied. Other kids can post positive comments on the bullied kids site or text the bully telling them to stop. On a different note, an "advantage" of cyberbullying vs. traditional bullying is that these conversations can be documented and traced. Another strategy to teach bullied kids is to save texts or chats so that if they do need to tell an adult what is happening, they have specific evidence of what is being said. This can also save the child the painful embarrassment of having to retell the horrible things that have been said about them.

  14. The discussion of "Tattling" vs. "Telling" is a very important first step in making the connection between attempting to get others into trouble and making sure that everyone is safe. No child wants to be labeled as a "snitch", but when they understand that bullying is a pattern and that their efforts help everyone, they are more likely to help solve the problem. Placing younger students into a leadership role and asking them to help "everyone" gives them ownership over their classroom and the atmosphere they help to create. I agree with Jeff B that children may not always be willing to communicate face to face, but are more cooperative through technology. By providing a student with an alternative means to communicate, an educator or parent can allow the child to express their concerns without fear of dismissal and/or being regarded as a "snitch".

  15. One issue that involves tattling vs. telling is trash talking. Tattlers generally want to tell someone when a trash talking cyber-conversation gets "bad." I have had a few kids report a cyberbully without saying anything about their role. When I have confronted the bully, I've been met with a big, wait a second. Typically the bully does have saved remarks made by the offended person that could also be considered bullying. I guess one question I have had is this. Is cyber trash talking a form of bullying? I think there are a variety of answers, but I always come back to one point. If you appear to be bullying someone, than you are. Trash talking via texting is certainly different than posting something on Facebook, but I also feel that friends can push the texting trash talking to far. Sameer brings up an excellent point. Adults need to have a rational conversation with the parties involved. Kids tend to push the envelope with their words when the can say them to someone without telling it to their face. In the example above, I have found that the tattler needed to have a conversation about what was going on. While I would prefer that they "tell" the whole story, tattlers need help. Resolving the issue in a rational manner is so important.

  16. Telling on someone has developed such a negative connotation that it is hard to help children understand the difference between tattling and telling. As Jeff stated, viewing telling as something that results in the greater good verses tattling as resulting in personal gain is a great way to make the distinction. I also liked what Luke shared, teaching students to “report” when someone is being physically or emotionally hurt. Children need to be taught that reporting a situation that is harmful in any way to oneself or another individual is not only a good thing to do but it’s the only right choice to make.

    Educating adults and children is key to stopping cyberbullying or bullying of any kind. We need to recognize there is a problem – we can’t afford to stand by and ignore the pain of others. Adults find it hard to stand up to their peers at times. How can we expect children to take a stand unless we have taught them how? We need to teach our children that silence when others are being hurt, is not acceptable. I think it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

    With the benefits technology has to offer, there also comes the ability to misuse it causing emotional pain to others. Since our children have this technology at their fingertips it seems irresponsible not to teach them how to use it appropriately. One of our basic needs is to feel safe. People of all ages need to realize how painful words can be. You may not be able to see the bruises but the pain is just as real.

    I believe school districts need to have policies in place to help protect our children but the schools can’t fight this alone. It will take parents, teachers, and communities to help stop cyberbullying/bullying. For years we have taught our children to “Just Say No to Drugs.” Perhaps it’s time to add bullying to that phrase.

  17. As Luke began, I face many of the same issues with my fourth graders who "tattle" to me about issues that are for the most part irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. Their ultimate goal as Sameer was addressing to get the other student in trouble.

    My overall stance on "tattling" versus "telling" is to continuously discuss and educate with my students the differences. Ultimately, we stress that if someone's safety is at risk, be it physical, social, emotional, behavioral, or academic.

    In terms of Cyberbullying, we are faced with a unique dilemma as was already mentioned. When this sort of bullying takes place, it may occur beyond the school day. If this is the case then involving the local authorities would seem the logical route to go. As MrsB alluded, we need more character ed in our schools. It seems that more and more each year we are educating students about basic life skills, attitudes, and manners that they are deficient in. This involves being more of a "disciple" versus being a "disciplinariain."

  18. Nice job clearly describing the difference between tattling and telling… I think we too often take it for granted that kids understand the difference. I also appreciated you saying that student's need to feel like their feelings are validated. Often times adults feel the need to first explain to a child why it is a child shouldn't be feeling the way they are rather than simply acknowledging how they feel and having a conversation about how to deal with their feelings.

  19. I think that it is very important to take reports of cyberbullying very seriously. There is some debate about the role that schools should play in this process. I think that school must follow up on any reports as it is our responsibility to protect children. The real debate comes in how proactive a school should be vs reactive. There is a line between following up on a report and invading students privacy in this issue. I know our school has done a nice job in educating our students about this topic. Our school does respond to requests from both parents and students alike. This is an important issue in education as we will no doubt see more and more of this. The first step is to make sure that the school has a policy. Then that policy should be made aware to the students. If the school cannot resolve a conflict law enforcement may need to be brought it. This recently happened as our school contacted the police in a situation where a student was being harassed via facebook by a parent of another student. The parent was actually issued a citation for disorderly conduct.

  20. Luke K – As I read your post I found myself in agreement with many of your thoughts. I, too, am an elementary teacher, and the topic of “tattling” vs. “telling” is an issue we cover within the first week of class. It is important for us as teachers and adults to educate today’s youth on the difference between “tattling” and “telling” and in turn, it is equally as important for us to be good listeners if a child is telling/reporting a concern to us. Often times, I find myself asking my students two types of questions to determine if they are tattling or reporting. Are you physically or emotionally hurt by this or are you trying to get someone else in trouble? If a student answered “yes” to the first question, then this is where an adult must intervene to ensure that all of our students feel safe when they are at school. We also need to educate today’s youth that if we do not know of a particular incident it is hard for us to offer any assistance. I bring this up because of the rapid growth in technology. With this growth, cyber bullying seems to be growing at rate equal to that of these technological devises. If we can teach our students at a young age the difference between “tattling” and “telling” my hope is that as these children become young adults, they will not hesitate to tell an adult if they are being bullied by one of their peers.

  21. I am a teacher and we spend alot of time talking about the difference between tattling and we say reporting instead of telling. There are many times I ask a student are you tattling or reporting. Yet, this is something that has to continually be addressed. We have to constantly have class meetings/discussions over when are you tattling or reporting. We need to give scenerios to help children understand what the difference is and why it is important to report and not tattle.

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