Give children the tools to avoid gossip

How we speak and interact with others affects our children

If there are any particular words that I can remember from my childhood, it's my father saying “If you can't say something nice, don't say anyway at all”. I don't think I paid an awful lot of attention at the time, being a pretty determined child who believed in having her say no matter what. I think my forthrightness has been passed on to my own children who are never shy about saying exactly what they think. It's great when children are confident and self-assured, but there is an onus on parents to remind children that words have power and how we use them can have a profound effect on those around us. Mother Teresa said that “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness”. How we speak and interact not only affects our own attitude, but those who live with us, those we meet every day and the wider society that we're all a part of.

A recent study is trying to claim that, despite what we might have thought previously, there may be a positive side to gossip. The research published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science in the US seems to back up the viewpoint that gossip and ostracism may have hidden group benefits. The researchers appeared to prove the point that the disapproval and excluding behaviour of the group served as tools “to reform bullies, thwart exploitation of ‘nice people’ and encourage cooperation”. One of the researchers, Robb Wiler, from Stanford University, explains that, whether it's termed gossip or “reputational information sharing”, passing on negative information about selfish individuals and ostracising them from a particular group is a fundamental part of human nature.


While approval from one's family members, peers or work colleagues is desirable, an approach which advocates such an extreme reaction isn't something I'd encourage. It's totally at odds with recent comments made by Pope Francis about the effects of gossip and how it can divide and destroy communities. Often fed by resentment and jealousy, the Pope described gossip as putting the other person down in an attempt to make oneself appear better or on a higher level. “How many beautiful Christian communities,” the Pope pointed out, “were getting along well,” but then were divided and destroyed because one member allowed the “worm of jealousy and envy” to enter his heart. The problem with gossip is that it is often rooted in some truth about a particular person or group. However, like a game of Chinese Whispers, what might have started as trivial chatter, loses nothing in the telling and before long someone's reputation is in shreds. A picture from my childhood catechism book always stuck in my memory long after I'd forgotten the exact details of the lesson. It depicted a woman shaking a pillow case full of feathers out an open window, the feathers represented of mean and spiteful words and the clear message being the impossibility of recovering these malicious words once they're out there.

Gossip, in all its guises, has become an integral part of popular culture. There are chat shows and entertainment programmes totally devoted to the latest escapades of anyone with even a whiff of celebrity status. Social networks are full of it: well-known figures chat away on Twitter as if they were nattering over the garden fence, seemingly forgetting their thousands of followers who are hanging on their every word. Teenagers and young people post on networking sites that often judge people on a very narrow range of criteria. Those who are judged to be too different can be teased mercilessly or be subject to bullying. The traits and characteristics that our young teenager's friends judge to be desirable, may not be the ones we hope to foster. What's seen as acceptable in the group isn't always based on high standards of behaviour and there may be a tendency to act like those in the Association of Psychological Science study and criticise or exclude those who are judged to be rocking the group boat.


I think there are very few of us who can claim that we never uttered a bad word about anyone. However, casual gossip is so pervasive that we can become totally oblivious to our own participation. In our homes, schools and workplaces, we have to make a conscious effort to accentuate the positive and assist our children to do the same. It's a good idea to actually provide children with some lines to use when a friend or school mate is being dragged over the coals. Something as simple as “I don't really agree” or mentioning something positive about the person, or even knowing how to change the subject can help a child when they're tempted to chime in with their own unkind additions.

Pope Francis was very firm in his rejection of gossip and cruel words, preaching about how refusing to engage in gossip would be a huge step forward for ourselves and for the communities we live in. The actor, Will Rogers once said that everyone should live in such a way that they wouldn't be ashamed to sell their parrot to the town gossip. This funny quote might remind us to always talk in a way that we wouldn't be ashamed of and that looks for the best in others.