Rumors and gossip seem to be a natural part of the social order for both children and adults. However, both Christian and Jewish philosophies, as well as common decency, warn against the dangers of allowing hurtful words to come out of your mouth. Child and adolescent psychologist D'Arcy Lyness explains, "When you say mean things, tell stories that you're not sure are true or reveal information you know is supposed to remain private, you're spreading gossip." Activities for children about gossip help break the chain of mean-spirited talk about others and learn to respect others' feelings and privacy as well as to know when a secret needs to be told for someone's safety.
The danger of gossip and rumors is that the farther the story travels from its source, the harder it gets to tell whether it in fact bears any resemblance to reality. The classic game of telephone demonstrates just how a story can change as it is passed from one person to the next. Have one child whisper a short phrase into the next child's ear who then passes it on to the next person and so on around the circle. The last child announces what he hears and the original child tells what she actually said. For example, "I like Scooby snacks" might come out at the other end as "Jack bites soupy snakes." Point out that although it is silly in the game, if you are talking about real people, warped or incomplete stories can be embarrassing or hurtful. Remind a child not to repeat a story they hear about someone else unless they both know the whole story and have permission from the person it is about to tell it.
Toothpaste Object Lesson
Everyone can relate to wishing you could take back something that you said, but unfortunately, unwise or unkind words cannot be undone once they are out of your mouth. Illustrate this for children by passing out paper plates, tubes of toothpaste and plastic spoons and knives. Ask them to squeeze a large glob of toothpaste on the plate. Give them one minute to try to stuff all the toothpaste back in the tube. When they cannot, explain that gossip is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube -- you can't really do it and end up with a big mess. This is why it is important to watch your words before they come out of your mouth because once they are out, the damage is done and it is difficult to take it back.
Interpretations and Assumptions
A common rumor scenario is when people jump to conclusions based on assumption, speculation and partial knowledge of the situation leading to all kinds of harmful misinterpretations. Give children some hypothetical examples. For instance, say you see the new girl at school getting into a police car. You don't know her or her family or anything about why she was getting into the police car but you start to talk amongst your friends about the possibilities. Ask children to identify some things that they might assume or wonder about if they saw such a situation, such as that she was being arrested for some terrible crime. After the children share, ask if their opinions would change at all if they knew that her dad was a police officer. Another example might be overhearing part of a conversation and assuming you know the entire story. For instance, you hear "I'll take him outside and then you can really let him have it." Discuss what the children think is going to happen, such as one kid is going to lure another kid outside for a third kid to beat up. Then ask how their interpretations and expectations would change if they knew the speakers were friends of the third kid and planning a birthday surprise for him after school. Elicit the understanding that rumors based on partial facts and half-truths and are not reliable sources of accurate or trustworthy information, so should not be repeated.
To Tell or Not to Tell
One difficulty for most children is knowing when telling a secret constitutes gossip and when it is appropriate and necessary to tell a trusted adult for the good and welfare of another. Explain that if a friend tells you they are going to do something dangerous or illegal, telling a grownup is not gossiping, tattling or spreading rumors. Have students role play situations where one friend is sharing something with another friend. The second friend asks the class for advice on whether to keep it a secret or tell and why.
- PBS Kids: Gossip and Rumors: Did You Hear?
- Teaching with TLC: Teaching Your Child About Gossip
- Canadian Family; Teaching Your Preteen About Gossip; Shelley Divnich Haggert
- A Way Through;Gossip, Rumors, and the Two-Part Telephone Game; Jane Balvanz
- Nemours Foundation; The Scoop on Gossip; D'Arcy Lyness; October 2010
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