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My 2-year-old son seems to be fascinated by the behavior problems of other children. He will tell anyone and everyone around that such-and-such was bad, and if he sees another child having a temper tantrum, it's almost impossible to put a stop to the "what's wrong with him?" questions.

I understand his need to understand the behavior of his peers, and that this is no doubt influenced by the fact that he is still learning about what is and is not acceptable behavior, and the best way for him to do so is to observe the behavior of others. However, it can be awkward and embarrassing when my son is loudly demanding explanations for other kids' (or parents'!) behavior. Worse, though, is when he goes around repeating everything "bad" other kids have done, including behavior from hours earlier.

What is the best approach to dealing with this? Will it sort itself out on its own, or is there something I should be doing to keep his observations a little more private?

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@TRiG as with many subjects, just because a concept can be extended to a ridiculous extreme does not mean the concept is without any merit. I'm not talking about teaching my son to keep quiet whenever he sees anything wrong. I'm talking about getting to stop relentlessly discussing other children's behavior that has already been adequately addressed by a supervising adult. Minor infractions that were resolved hours, or even days, earlier. –  Beofett Mar 2 '13 at 12:26
    
Fair enough. That makes sense. (But I don't think it's any harm to clarify that, as you have done.) –  TRiG Mar 2 '13 at 16:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The mantra I always used with my children:

Are you telling me to get [subject of tattle] out of trouble, or into trouble?

Letting me know that someone is doing something they need rescuing from is welcome; letting me know that someone is doing something they need a timeout for, not so much. And telling me about a misbehaviour that has already been dealt with by whoever is there to deal with it, even less. I don't mean the problem has to be huge. "Jimmy has juice on the carpet!" can prevent the trouble that will follow a spill if I can pop over to the carpet and pick up either Jimmy or the juice and get them back somewhere that juice is allowed. Telling me mitigated things. But once it has spilled, or if it spilled this morning and someone else already cleaned it up and dealt with it? You're just flat out tattling.

Now, in a really small child, there's another reason for telling you:

X had a tantrum today. That's not good, is it? How would you react if I had a tantrum? How should I react when a tantrum happens near me? They're scary. But not unbearably awful, right? And you can help me learn to control myself, right? And you'll love me even if I'm bad, right? But I should still try not to be bad, right? Or ok, I'm not being bad, I'm just doing something that isn't the best to do. Or something. But wow, tantrums just seem to start out of nowhere. And then after he had to sit in the naughty chair [or whatever] and I don't want to do that, so I hope I don't have one, but I might, so wow can we talk about this a bit?

But if you're two, about all that manages to come out of your mouth is "X had a tantrum today."

Inappropriate reporting can easily be replied with "let's not talk about that right now [or right here]" and some sort of redirection. Later, perhaps on the way home when the others aren't around, you can prompt "did you want to talk about [whatever X did] now?" If you don't offer to discuss it shortly after the original report, then "not now" means "swallow your feelings and never talk about other people or learn from your observations" which you don't want. But a parent can guide when and where is best for those kinds of talks.

Lets-you-and-him-fight tattling gets the "in or out of trouble" line. The nice thing about this approach is that it also works when your child is 7, and has a friend who is breaking her own house rules, or is 12 and has a friend who is drinking her father's beers, or is 17 and has a friend who is and planning to run away (or worse.) My kids have reported their friends' behaviours to me when it was needed, and I've been able to keep them out of trouble occasionally as a result. They've also reported teachers and other authority figures who were not doing the right thing. I like that about my kids. But I've not needed to deal with that whiny someone-broke-a-rule-while-you-weren't-looking tattling, and that's made me pretty content.

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+1: Really great answer –  deworde Feb 22 '13 at 23:28
    
+1 for the mantra. –  SQB Feb 17 at 9:16

Try to address the loudness issue first. Explain that loud voices in public settings, especially inside, are not appropriate. Demonstrate the difference between a Loud Voice and a Quite Voice. Then offer positive reinforcement when he does this and coaching when he doesn't - just like you would for other behaviors you wish to encourage. Because using a Quite Voice has such broad applications you should have plenty of opportunity to coach him outside of the tattle tale issue you are focusing on here.

You can also try to form a simple and consistent answer and hope that he can internalize the message. Something like:

"I am your parent and if you behave like that it's my job to teach you how to behave. But we have to let their parents teach them, and we should let them do it."

After you model this answer several times, you can then ask him what the answer is. With any luck he will soon be able to recall the answer, and then progress to providing the answer internally instead of constantly bringing it to your attention.

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