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Why Are Children Such Snitch-y Little Tattletales

Kids tattle to reinforce social norms, not to save their own skin, new study finds.  

Children are unrepentant tattletales. And when your kid’s big mouth tosses the blame at your feet, it’s tempting to chalk up their bald-faced honesty to self-preservation. Why did your son tell your wife that you broke that fancy dish? Because he was afraid she’d blame him! But a new study in Social Development reports that children tattle even when they know they cannot be blamed for a transgression. The results suggest kids tattle to reinforce social norms, not to save their own skin.

“Children tattle about third-party moral transgressions even when they cannot be held responsible for those transgressions, suggesting that children’s tattling serves cooperative rather than self-serving functions,” according to the study. “This highlights the impressive ways in which children enforce moral norms and thus help maintain cooperation.”

Still, why children tattle is the subject of some dispute. One of the only thorough studies on tattling behavior found that preschoolers tattle when others harm them, but seldom spill the beans when an aggressor harms a third party. The study, however preliminary, suggested that children tattle to protect themselves from blame or from further harm. At the same time, some experts suspect tattling is a way to enforce social norms — and activity in which preschoolers invest heavily. Kids punish wrongdoers, for instance, even when doing so puts them at risk. They protest when other kids cheat and, when one child steals from another, a third child will often retrieve the object and either return it to its rightful owner or remove it from reach. It is not unreasonable to suspect that preschool social dynamics, including tattling, are at least partly driven by norm enforcement.

So Vaish and colleagues designed an experiment, involving 36 three-year-olds, to tease these possibilities apart. Each child sat for a puppet show involving a fox, a bunny, and a dog. In one condition, the dog served as moderator and explained that each puppet had a key to the locked box on the stage, and everyone knew that the child did not have a key to this box. (But the children did have a key to the separate box in another room because, in an adorable twist, Vaish and colleagues noticed that the preschoolers felt sad if all of their puppet friends had keys and they did not).

Then, the show began. The bunny created a work of art, locked it in the box for safekeeping, and hopped away with the dog. The coast was clear. The fox then used his key to open the box, tear the bunny’s painting to shreds, and lock the mess away. The child was placed in a fascinating position. He or she knew the fox had done something wrong, and that he or she could not be blamed for it.

Nonetheless, all of the children tattled on the fox (except for two children who, hilariously, were excluded from the study after they preempted the fox and tore up the painting themselves). The result demonstrates that children tattle even when there’s nothing on the line except social norms.

“Our results indicate that children’s tattling serves the cooperative function of enforcing norms rather than the more selfish function of getting themselves out of trouble,” Vaish and colleagues write. “Children knew they could not be blamed for any damage caused to those objects…[so their] tattling was entirely focused on informing the victim about the transgression.” And if tattling is not just a way to weasel out of uncomfortable situations, but a pro-social behavior that enforces healthy norms, perhaps we shouldn’t be discouraging kids from tattling on their friends. 

“Children’s tattling is often viewed as an undesirable behavior,” said co-author on the study Amrisha Vaish of the University of Virginia in a statement. “But at least under some circumstances, tattling can also be seen as evidence that children recognize important social norms and that they care enough about those norms to try and make sure that others follow them as well. This kind of norm enforcement is generally seen as a positive force in social groups.”