Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Gossip and tattle tales- justifiable or not?

A few weeks ago the older three kids were having the following conversation at the dinner table.
"Today Jenna was caught copying Angie's work," one of them said "She got into such big trouble with Ms McIntyre (the principal)".

"Today Anna was being really rude to Becky," the other added. "Becky felt sad and I could see that she wanted to cry".

 "Last week Aiden and Hayley were holding hands secretly," the third one giggled, but then added more seriously, "But then later we saw Aiden smack Hayley in the face during an argument".
And then, "I heard that Marcia's dad and Dehlia's mom were seen holding hands"- which is when their dad and I stopped the conversation.

Mo, my husband is very very strict when it comes to enforcing the no-gossiping rule in our family. This role he exercises not only with the children, but with me too (embarrassingly, I do tend to slip up now and then).

His stance on gossiping is influenced by our religious beliefs firstly, as our religion treats gossiping as a major transgression, by virtue of the fact that its effects (1) harm others and (2) can have lasting consequences, for example the tarnishing of someone's reputation.

Secondly, he also tries to discourage negative and destructive communication. There is, in his opinion, no benefit to be found in discussing someone else's business or character in their absence.

Although the temptation to share an opinion on someone else's behaviour, or to pass along a juicy piece of gossip is so great, I do share his beliefs on the issue. In addition to the above-mentioned reasons, I also find it liberating to be able to interact with people of whom I have a less than favourable opinion, without having to stress about whether they've found out that I've been gossiping about them.
When passing along this lesson to the kids though, I think we face the same challenges as with establishing a rule on tattle tales. On the one hand, while this conduct is undesirable, it is sometimes the only way we as parents get a glimpse into the happenings at our kids' school.

Referring to the dinner time conversation mentioned above, I'm not sure that one can say that all the information they were sharing served absolutely no purpose other than cheap entertainment (irrespective of their intentions).

To me some of the information was valuable since it highlighted issues prevalent in the school, of which I should perhaps take heed. For example, who would have thought that there were established boyfriend-girlfriend relationships in grade 4? I find this information to be valuable as it removed the blinkers from my eyes and alerted me to the fact that these children are aware of so much more than we thought.

In addition to providing useful insight for me, I think that the discussion also highlighted to the kids the potentially negative consequences of certain behaviour, for example, Jenna ended up in the principal's office for copying.
It also provided a way to raise certain issues for discussion within a very real and practical context. We had a discussion about the impact our comments and actions can have on someone else's feelings and how we should respect other people's feelings (in relation to Becky's hurt feelings due to Anna's rudeness).
I was able to have a more serious discussion with the older two about relationships between girls and boys; and also the very pertinent topic of physical abuse within relationships.
I am in no way justifying idle gossip and am all too aware of its harmful effects . Perhaps the preferred approach would be to let the kids relate the stories without revealing the identities of the parties involved in the story (and so doing, retain the moral of the story without compromising anyone's reputation)??? Just a thought.

In addition, stories such as Marcia's dad holding hands with Dehlia's mom would not be justifiable, as it amounts to pointless gossip. How one would get the children to distinguish between the two though, I really don't know (especially since I, myself have at some point blurred the lines by justifying gossiping when there was a juicy story I absolutely had to tell Mo). 

I recently read about a philosopher who had refused to let his friend tell him a piece of gossip unless the gossip story met the criteria of the Triple Filter Test. In terms of this test,
1) the person relaying the information had to be 100 % certain as to its truth
2) the story being told had to be something good /positive about the person about whom they were talking; or
3)the information had to be useful to the person hearing it.

Whatever approach we choose to follow, I think the bottom line is that we should aim to get the kids to be mindful of what they utter about others and to bear in mind that while physical wounds might at times heal easily, the effects of reputational or emotional damage are often more lasting.


Fahranaaz said...

It concerns me a bit when I read that Aiden was rude to Becky, then holding hands with Hayley.. then smacked Haley in the face... hmm, something to discuss with teacher perhaps? In this case I would say that the kids were just telling about their day at school which borderline gossip but not really intentionally so.
IMO These stories are vital for the parents to know what is happening in the children's lives and what they are exposed to. Its very important that they feel free to tell you anything.

Savouring mommy moments said...

This is exactly what my concern has been - the only way we know what is happening at school is through what our kids tell us.

Fortunately because of the 'culture of no mindless-hurtful gossip' which has generally come about through my husband's example (rather than through restricting their communication), I think it has become second-nature to the kids to refrain from comments like 'Amy is stupid/ugly/fat' - while still feeling free to express themselves.

I am of course referring mainly to the older 2. Nuha (7) is still at that age where she says whatever enters her mind ( which will hopefully become the basis of a relationship of free communication with us in the future). About a month ago she passed an insulting comment about the way her friend walked, which she then quickly retracted with an apology. This we had never lectured her about - her aversion to hurtful-mindless-gossip seems to have come about due to the 'culture' in the home as opposed to having received long lectures from us / from us having restricted her speech.

Let's hope we can maintain the open communication we have with the kids now. (Though, with adolescence around the corner for my older 2, I'm not holding my breath :) )