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5 Ways to Curb Your Child's Gossip Habit

Although gossip can be a social skill and even a force for good, often it hurts people. Here are five ways to keep your child on a positive track.

By
Cheryl Butler
Episode #533
how to curb your kids gossiping habit

Science Daily shared a recent study, conducted by the University of California, which cited that people gossip 52 minutes a day on average. Younger people are more prone to partake in gossip than older folks. If gossip’s got you down, Mighty Mommy has 5 ways you can help your child curb this bad habit and get on a more positive track.

Another school year is over, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a less hectic and much less scheduled couple of months. My 13-year old daughter, however, isn’t seeing it that way. She's already fretting about not getting to see her friends as much now that everyone’s on vacation.

Quite frankly, I was a little surprised that she isn’t ready for a break. This year was packed with a bit more teen drama than she’s experienced in years past. But she’s already missing the daily chatter she encountered at school. While banter is normal—it's a lifeline to the social circles teens whirl about in—unfortunately, so is gossip. And it's often a culprit behind all that teen drama.

Gossip Can Be a Strong Social Skill  

Although gossip usually has negative connotations, that’s not always the case. Many studies have been done about the psychology of gossip, and we've learned that it's a highly evolved social skill dating back to prehistoric days.

People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict—and influence—the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.

Psychology Today’s article, Gossip Is a Social Skill, Not a Character Flaw, Dr. Frank T. McAndrew explained how gossip is a survival tool. “According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.”  He adds, “People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict—and influence—the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.”

Not All Gossip is Bad

This same article says that the art of gossiping provides a strong skillset in the workplace and other social settings like school. Good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups. The art of gossiping to bond and build relationships helps a person create a positive rapport amongst their peers as long as the information is shared in a discreet, trustworthy manner.

Positive gossip—talk about people doing something well—has self-improvement value for those engaging in the conversation. It can encourage the gossipers to do better. For example, think about a group discussing a peer's recent performance. “Wow! Did you hear about Katie breaking the school record in the track meet yesterday?” or “Mark’s SAT scores are unbelievable—a perfect 1600! How can he be so smart?”

It’s good to know that there's some value in gossip, especially when you want to talk with your child about the right and wrong way to discuss someone who isn't present and part of the conversation.

Kids Start Gossiping Young

Ever wonder when kids start to learn the fine art of gossip? A study by the British Journal of Developmental Psychology says that gossiping starts as early as the age of 5.

The gist of the study was gathered in an experiment using puppets. The article explained that scientists asked a few dozen 3- and 5-year-olds to play a sharing game with two puppets. A child was asked to give a puppet four tokens, or vice versa. One of the puppets was a total rule-follower and would always get and give the appropriate amount of tokens. The other wasn’t—it would cheat by giving too few or too many tokens. Once the puppets left, the researchers brought a second child into the room and listened in as the kids discussed their experience. The 5-year-olds had better gossip skills than the younger kids participating. Fifty-four percent of the children evaluated the puppets' reputations and warned others to avoid the one with the unfair playing style.

5 Ways to Prevent Gossiping in Children

Here are five ways to teach your children to engage in gossip that's helpful, not harmful.

#1 - Teach the ripple effect.

As we've learned, kids start gossiping young. It’s the perfect time to begin teaching them the difference between making derogatory comments and talking positively about others.

When my child was in elementary school, we learned that when a pebble is dropped into water, it creates a ripple effect that continues quickly across the surface. There is no way to stop the ripple once it begins. Demonstrating this is a tangible way to show your child what gossip can do. Like ripples in a pond, rumors spread quickly, and rumors can hurt people.

Like ripples in a pond, rumors spread quickly, and rumors can hurt people.

However, we can also use kind words to create a ripple effect. When we talk about others in a positive, loving way, those words can boost a person’s self-esteem. By encouraging your kids to say kind things about their friends and family, you’re promoting a positive type of gossip.

#2 - Encourage keeping quiet as a strategy.

I love simplicity. Two of my favorite rules to live by are The Golden Rule—“Treat others as you want to be treated”—and another that advises “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

My parents instilled those two sayings in my siblings and I growing up, and I’ve touted them to my eight kids. We all have a choice when it comes to engaging in negative chatter about another person—we can join in or we can ignore it. There are many instances when gossip is part of a group conversation and walking away may not be possible. I remind my kids (and myself!) that if they can't contribute something positive, it’s best to keep quiet and say nothing at all.

Another gentle reminder I share with my kids about those who gossip: “If someone is taking the time to talk badly to you about another person, chances are they’re going to talk about you too when the opportunity arises.”

#3 - Teach your child to ask "Why are you telling me this?"

Let’s be honest, sometimes we all love to hear the juicy details about someone’s hot new romance or to ponder why a promotion was given to the boss's third cousin, who has only been with the company for a few weeks, rather than a colleague who has worked tirelessly for the past five years. It’s human nature to satisfy our curiosity when unexpected news comes our way, especially if it’s a bit scandalous.

Our kids are no different. When the “she said, he said” vine starts growing, it can get ugly pretty darn fast. The next time you or your child are faced with an uncomfortable conversation full of gossip, try this tactic recommended by Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide.

When someone tries to engage your child in gossip, their best defense is to ask, 'Why are you telling me this?'

When someone tries to engage your child in gossip, Schweitzer says the best defense is to ask, "Why are you telling me this?" With this phrase, your child can let their friend know they're not happy with the direction the conversation is taking. If the friend persists, Schweitzer recommends saying, "I don't appreciate [this discussion]—let's change the subject" or "That's my friend, and I won't listen to someone badmouthing them."

Psychologists say this tactic is effective for a couple of reasons. First, the question immediately disrupts any self-serving motive from the gossiper. Second, the phrase forces them to face the fact that the person their gossping with is none-too-happy about being involved.

#4 - Help Your Child Become a Gossip Buster

My 13-year-old daughter experienced more than her fair share of drama in school this year. The group of friends she's been hanging out with for the past few years disbanded for various reasons. She tried to remain friendly with all of them, but several had fallings out with one or another in the group. If she tried to hang out with one of them, she seemed to alienate the rest of the group because it looked like she was taking sides. This went on for most of the year until my daughter finally told the group she was going to continue being friends with one girl who was being left out. That decision, which I applauded her for, resulted in a couple of the girls deciding not to speak to my daughter any longer.

Teach your child that the best way to avoid being a part of the gossip mill in school is to steer clear of kids who gossip.

It's never easy to take a stand in a friendship situation like this, but my daughter didn’t want to feel like a mean girl, especially when she really enjoys the friendship she has with the girl who was ousted from their group. Teach your child that the best way to avoid being a part of the gossip mill in school is to steer clear of kids who gossip. If they happen to hear a rumor, remind them not to repeat it, and not to listen to it, either. Remind them that, when someone trusts them with a personal secret, they should keep it to themselves.

My daughter is finding that she’s better off with a small handful of friends who genuinely care about her rather than a large clique who make gossiping a daily pastime.

#5 - Practice what you preach.

We parents are our kids’ most important role models. If you’re trying to discourage your own child from being a gossip hound, it’s time to take a close look at how you talk about others, especially when your children are watching.

Gossip can become a mindless form of communication. One minute we’re complaining about how much rain we’ve had and within seconds we’re talking about the hideous raincoat our child’s bus driver wears. Worse, when we have these discussions, we might be driving in the car talking on our cell phones with our kids in the back seat or chatting with the other moms who wait at the bus stop. It's important to remember that young ears may be in close range. What kind of example are we setting?

It’s time to take a close look at how you talk about others, especially when your children are watching.

Turn gossip around by making a point to mention others in a positive light. If someone quips about the bus driver’s ugly raincoat, you can quickly reply, “She’s so friendly and patient with all the kids she drives to school. And she always has a smile for them when they board the bus each morning.” If a conversation isn’t heading in a helpful direction, choose to be the one who changes course by changing the subject. You’ll be setting a great example for your kids and it will help you be more mindful of how you talk about others as well.

GET MORE MIGHTY MOMMY

How do you discourage your kids from gossiping? Please share your thoughts in the comments section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommy, post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page or email me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com. Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT

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About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!

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