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Teach the difference between 'telling' and 'tattling' now to help kids later

Did anyone teach you the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘tattling’ when you were growing up? How many adults can verbalize it now?

In The Bully, the Bullied and The Bystander, author and speaker Barbara Coloroso writes of the importance of explaining how to discern the difference between the two to children, beginning at age four or five so that they can practice making the distinction using every day events as they grow up.

Coloroso argues that when individuals understand ‘telling’ an adult about something that concerns them means that it will get another child out of trouble and ‘tattling’ is for the purpose of getting another child in trouble, this can be an effective tool against bullying.

She writes that when children tattle,

“We admonish them, ‘Don’t tattle, don’t snitch.’…the words we use – tattle, snitch…have a harness that communicates to our kids that it’s not a good thing to ever tell on anybody. These words entrench children in the deeply embedded code of silence.”

By explaining the language and providing this tool, adults are teaching good communication skills that will help them solve problems throughout their lives. Naturally, not every situation will neatly fall into ‘telling’ or ‘tattling’. Occasions may arise when telling an adult could get someone out of trouble and in to trouble at the same time. Coloroso advises that in a situation when going to an adult qualifies as both telling and tattling, children should be advised that an adult needs to know.

Summary of differences:


  • an adult needs to know
  • will get another child out of trouble
  • example - James has climbed dangerously high up into a tree


  • an adult does not need to know
  • will get another child in trouble
  • example - James has been told not to climb the tree and he keeps touching it


  • an adult needs to know
  • even if telling could potentially get James in trouble, it will save him more trouble in the end by preventing him from injury
  • example - James has been told not to climb the tree and he has climbed high up into weak, shaky branches

There are times when children and teens need the direction of a caring and responsible adult, and a child who is able to understand the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘tattling’ is more likely to be comfortable in reaching out to one.

In the attached video and in her numerous speaking engagements and publications, Coloroso tells stories of bullied children and teens who would not not speak up out of fear. It is often a witness, or bystander, who is able to tell an adult who make a significant impact on the outcome of difficult situations.

How many adults today can say that they have never been witness to another's pain? How many had the confidence to help?

Taking the time to teach the difference between 'telling' and 'tattling' to children means that teens and adults of the future will have this tool at their disposal when they find themselves in difficult situations.

“If you want to change the world, start by changing the life of a child.”

~Denzel Washington

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Were you bullied as a child, or a witness to bullying? Do you think if you were comfortable with telling an adult (and confident you weren't 'tattling'), that you would have been more likely to have spoken up?

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