Whether it’s the buzz about someone who recently lost their job or the new ink gracing the lower back of the mom down the block, we all tend to gossip. So is it any wonder that by Grade 4, kids who soak up what they see and hear already find themselves surrounded by drama on their own personal stage?
If knowledge is power, then information is valuable currency. Kids hoping to be the centre of attention or to feel like part of a group will find eager listeners if they have the latest scoop. “Gossip is normal behaviour,” says Dr. Tina Daniels, researcher for PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) and an associate professor of child studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “Most of the time, it’s benign.” Kids share information to build intimacy with one another, she explains. “But when those relationships are strengthened at the expense of someone else, it becomes harmful.”
“I hear it from Serena herself,” says Denise Esson of St. Thomas, Ont., about her 11-year-old daughter, who likes to share juicy tidbits about her mates from school and dance class. “There’s so much drama about their personal lives. I find myself telling her not to pay attention to it.”
It’s not just girls who gossip — boys have similar experiences. But girls seem to be more vulnerable, probably because their social networks tend to be smaller. “Boys’ social aggression is often directed outside their immediate peer group, whereas girls will take turns turning on one another,” says Dr. Daniels. And these days, texting, Facebook and Twitter make the problem worse. “Now you can share something with a hundred people in a minute,” she says. And bullying of all types can produce devastating results. In addition to avoiding school, “targets can suffer declining self-esteem, a skewed perception of themselves, depression and anxiety,” she explains.
So how can you wean your child off gossip?
Set an example: Yes, even parents like to dish, but keep the gossip to a minimum when kids are around.
Break the chain: Ask your child to consider how the person being talked about would feel and how she’d feel if the same information were shared about her. Would she be embarrassed? Sad? Mad? “You need to motivate them not to engage,” says Dr. Daniels. “Gossip isn’t effective if people don’t pass it on.”
Respect people’s privacy: If someone is gossiping to your child, they are likely gossiping about her as well, so encourage her to keep personal information she hears about someone else to herself and to be careful about whom she shares secrets with. Remind her to watch what she posts online and to keep passwords confidential to avoid having her accounts hacked into.
Steer clear of bigmouths: Extracurricular activities are a good way for your child to meet other kids with similar interests and to ensure that she has a variety of peer groups. Having been the subject of a rumour, Sonya Martin’s daughter chose to withdraw from some of the kids at her school, even though she’d known them for years. “She has a wider social circle outside of school,” says the Belle River, Ont., mom. “And knowing what it feels like, she doesn’t gossip about other kids.” Dr. Daniels agrees that children who have groups of friends are more protected. “If a kid has no place to go, they’re more likely to stay in an unhealthy friendship, even if they’ve become a target.”
Empathize with her, says Victoria Haist, a counsellor with Kids Help Phone. “Gossip can really hurt, even if it wasn’t meant to.” She suggests finding out if it’s an isolated incident, which you can encourage your child to ignore. However, ongoing or large-scale gossip will need to be addressed — you may need to intervene and bring it to the attention of the school principal.
Whichever end of the rumour mill your child may find herself on, it’s important that she knows it’s okay to share with you. Telling a parent or guardian about a friend’s risky behaviour or bullying that she’s witnessed or experienced is important. “Kids will always downplay what’s happening,” says Martin. “You need to be tuned in so you can decide when it’s time to step in.”