It was one of those major learning lessons in my parenting life. My wife Cathy and I were “speculating” at the kitchen table one day that one of our neighbors were probably getting a divorce. The husband hadn’t been around, and Cathy had heard from one of the other neighbors that he was “possibly” having an affair. What we didn’t realize was that our daughter (nine years old at the time) was listening to the conversation.
Later in the day, I overheard my daughter telling her friend down the street that these neighbors were getting a divorce and would probably be moving out of the neighborhood. She told her little friend that the daddy was living someplace else.
When her friend left our house, I walked into her room and asked her where she had heard that news. She replied that she had heard it from us. Ouch. I realized right at that moment not only had Cathy and I gossiped about our neighbors, but our daughter was imitating our behavior. As much as I thought she was wrong to tell her friend, I realized Cathy and I were even more at fault. We had listened to gossip, we fed into it, and we were responsible for the gossip being spread. That night we sat our daughter down and apologized to her for how we had handled the information that we had heard second-hand and we told her that gossip was wrong. We didn’t punish her, but we did use this as a learning experience.
That week we had a family meeting with our three kids. We started by saying we had done wrong that week and gossiped about something. They didn’t need to know what it was although that was their first question. I read a Bible verse that called gossip a sin and even put it in the same sentence as murder. That got the kids attention. I then went on to say that I wanted our family to live by a higher standard. We called it the “No Gossip Rule.” If anyone in our family was caught gossiping, including mom and dad, they had to put 25 cents in a jar.
Here were the four principles we came up with:
1. Is it true? Is it right? Is it lovely?
These words are taken out of a scripture verse in Philippians 4:8. Those three questions are now forever embedded in our heads. We even put them on a paper and placed them where we could all see them on the refrigerator. If you and your kids live by this principle it pretty much shuts down gossip.
2. Treat people the way you would want to be treated.
This principle sounds a lot like the Golden Rule doesn’t it? And that is exactly where it comes from. (“Treat others the same way you would want to be treated.” Luke 6:31) When one of my daughters was in middle school. I overheard her and her friend gossiping about a girl in school when I was driving them to the mall. It wasn’t the meanest gossip, but it was still gossip. Later that night when we were alone, I repeated the words she said and then asked her if she would ever want someone to say that about her. She got quiet and said not really. That night she learned the lesson we all must learn, treat people with the respect you would want to be treated with. She then put a quarter in the jar.
3. Gossip is a form of bullying.
No one likes a bully. Ugly rumors, sharing secrets, whispering mean-spirited comments about anyone is bullying. Gossip can spread like a wildfire. The old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words can never heart me” is a LIE. There are over 160,000 kids in the United States who stay home from school every day because they claim they were bullied. Teach your children the very best way to stop gossip and bullying is to never, ever spread it. This takes discipline but parents must teach their kids to walk away when other kids are gossiping or teach them to say, “I don’t want to talk about this.” Or if they do hear something, just keep it to themselves. Much of gossip is spreading lies and half-truths which is a major part of bullying.
4. Children see, children do.
This principle is obvious. If you want your children to not gossip than you must make sure you are taking the lead. We found that the 25-cent jar sometimes had our own money in it. So, remember, leadership starts with you, period. And by the way, living your life by these principles and leading out with the three questions is just a healthy way to live and model good behavior: Is it true? Is it right? And is it lovely?
Gossip is a character issue. Unfortunately, too many parents are so busy parenting by circumstance and chance that we don’t get around to developing a strategy to build character into our kids’ lives. Don’t miss the opportunity to change the trajectory of your kids and family by missing these simple but not so easy principles. By the way, a few years after we started putting money in the jar, we made a significant donation to a homeless shelter with a bunch of quarters!