I have a sister who will not gossip.
I’m an adult, so this should make me proud. But I’m also human, so it’s kind of annoying too.
Growing up, she always responded to my inquiries about mutual friends with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. What gives?
Turns out she learned the value of treating others with kindness and respect much earlier than I did. And it shows. She boasts friendships that span decades and a reputation of being trustworthy.
If I want this future for my own kids, I’ll need to work against my inner nature.
Want to join me? Let’s teach our kids to recognize gossip when they see it, brainstorm healthy alternatives, and offer ideas for what to do when they catch one friend talking about another.
What Is Gossip, Exactly?
When we’re talking to kids, it helps to simplify things. So let’s start with an operating definition of gossip.
Gossip is talking about someone else in a not-so-nice way.
Still, for young children, this might be difficult to define. After all, with this definition gossip includes information that’s either totally true, partially true, or made-up. It can also come across as light-hearted banter or serious drama.
Teach Kids to Recognize Gossip When They Hear It
Encourage your kids to check their feelings during a conversation about someone else. If they notice a mixture of emotions—powerful and guilty, happy and sad, or clean and icky—it might be because they’re engaging in gossip.
Gossip Harms Everyone Involved
As adults, we know that gossip eventually hurts both the person being talked about and the person doing the talking. We can help our kids understand the severity of seemingly innocent talk by explaining that gossip harms people in the following ways:
- It puts the person being talked about into a box. (I heard something bad about Sam. I don’t know Sam well, so this story becomes who Sam is to me.)
- It doesn’t allow the person being talked about to share their side of the story.
- It’s often exaggerated. Even gossip that’s based on the truth rarely gets told correctly.
- It makes the person engaging in gossip less trustworthy and more likely to be gossiped about in the future.
If Gossip Is So Bad, Why Do Kids Do It?
We all gossip from time to time. Well, most of us anyway (looking at you sis).
After all, gossip serves as a way for us to bond with our peers and look out for people who might mistreat us. But do kids understand this nuance? And even if they do, is gossip really worth the risk of hurting others?
Kids gossip for lots of reasons:
- As a reflection of how they see their parents interact with others
- In order to have a little fun with a group of friends
- To gauge how others feel about a person or their activities
- As an attempt to address a real problem
- To be a bully
And while we might find our children—or ourselves—anywhere on that list of reasons, psychologists say kids as young as eight-years-old learn to engage in harmful gossip as a way to climb the social ladder.
Encourage Healthy Alternatives to Gossip
If kids are really going to avoid gossip, they’ll need to fill in a few relational gaps that might otherwise tempt them to talk. Brainstorm together to finish the following sentences. Search for ideas that meet a need WITHOUT hurting other people in the process.
A few activities I can engage in to feel closer to my friends might include . . .
I can add drama and excitement to my life in the following ways . . .
If I have a legitimate problem with someone else, I can . . .
When I’m unsure about the actions of others, I will talk to . . .
Share your strategies for creating healthy, positive relationships, as well as your own struggles with gossiping and being gossiped about. Kids live for vulnerable moments with a parent—better than any juicy story, no doubt!
8 Questions Every Kid Can Ask When They Encounter Gossip
When the prep work is done, offer your kids a few key questions to consider whenever they find themselves in a sticky conversation. Questions like:
- Why are we talking about this?
- Who does it hurt?
- Who does it help?
- Can anything good come from this conversation?
- Do we have a problem that needs to be solved?
- How can I change this conversation?
- What good do I see in the person being talked about?
- What good do I see in the person doing the talking?
Let your child answer these questions internally and trust that, with time, they’ll see the best way forward. I know I have (just don’t tell my sister).