Being adults, we often partake in discussions or conversations which involve and concern others. These may arise in formal settings such as at work or in informal spaces with friends or with family members on a day-to-day basis in a typical household. Although not always, many a time these conversations take a negative route which is what we call 'gossip.' To one's surprise, it is not just adults who engage in such conversations, but according to research children as young as eight also frequently indulge in gossip and rumor spreading (now we know it is not just the teens!).
There are a variety of reasons why there is a strong gossip culture among children of elementary and middle school ages. Here are some of the most commonly attributed ones.
To be accepted: Through the early years and toward adolescence, children go through several stages of social development. Amidst that, they feel the need to be valued and accepted by their peers. So, when children are seeking friendships or trying to 'fit into the crowd,' they try to do things which will make them fit in easily, and this could mean talking about other kids and putting them down.
To test the waters: Some experts in the field suggest that young children and teens gossip as a means of testing or learning whom they can trust. Therefore, instead of making themselves feel vulnerable by sharing their personal secrets, they gossip about others to see how their friend(s) will respond. This way they are able to experiment and find out whether they can trust that person to be their true friend or not.
To ward off negative vibes: Sometimes a child may engage in gossip when they feel that others are mistreating him/her. And, in order to shift the focus or attention away from their own selves, they begin to gossip about others to remove those insecurities.
To gain popularity: Most of the times, especially when it comes to teens, it is more about a quest for popularity. Hence, teens like to engage in gossip as a means to become the first ones to share 'exciting' updates and stories.
To address a real problem: A group of friends may also gossip with the intention to discuss a real issue which needs attention. For example, owing to a rift in a group of close friends, they might split and team up, resulting in gossip.
As a socially accepted norm: Children do as they see. Subconsciously, children gain acceptance of certain behaviors as a reflection of what they see or observe in their surroundings. If parents casually discuss others, such as their friends or family members in a negative way, then that is what children are subconsciously absorbing. And, this will reflect in their social interaction with other children and their friends.
Recognizing and Understanding Gossip
Islam stresses a great deal on this casually committed sin, as can be observed in the following verse from Surah Hujurat:
"O believers! Avoid many suspicions, ˹for˺ indeed, some suspicions are sinful. And do not spy, nor backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of their dead brother? You would despise that!1 And fear Allah. Surely Allah is ˹the˺ Accepter of Repentance, Most Merciful."
(Surah Al Hujurat, 49:12)
Additionally, the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, also warned us against the tidings of engaging in gossip. He said,
“The gossip-monger will not enter Paradise.”
This leaves us parents to ponder over this negative character trait and reflect on how we choose to associate ourselves or tackle situations that involve gossip. It is only then that we will be able to raise awareness amongst our children and the future generations to recognize the destructive pattern of gossip and subsequently avoid it. Whether it is for our own selves or our children, it is important to understand and be able to identify where to draw the line in order to guard our tongue or speech against vain talk. Knowing what to avoid can help, too. One may find that they are engaging in gossip when:
- the topic involves talking about another person behind their back
- the nature of the talk involves personal comments
- the information being disclosed or shared is surprising, disturbing, or shocking (it grabs your attention and makes you want to listen on to the juicy details)
- the context is such that it cannot be openly discussed in public (unlike rumors)
Having to explain such concepts to younger children may not be as easy. Although modeling is a good practice when it comes to character building and teaching moral values, but there also needs to be a verbal reinforcement of some kind. Therefore, when addressing younger children we must be careful not to overwhelm them with information or vocabulary that is not age-appropriate. Keep it simple and straightforward. For example, you may tell them that gossip is when two people talk about someone in a not-so-nice way.
Moreover, we can address the issue of gossip by talking about the negative aspects of it.
Why is Gossip Harmful?
As adults, we may or may not realize that when we make someone a subject of our discussion (in a negative way), it leaves a negative impact on us as well as the person being talked about. And, this is exactly what we need to teach our children. It happens so, because;
- When we talk about another person in a negative manner, we are labelling them in a way. The person with whom we are sharing that information may also begin to associate that negativity with the person being talked about (without actually knowing them or their version of the story).
- Gossip does not necessarily entail the truth and is often found to be exaggerated. Or it may be that the information is misinterpreted by the person who is at the receiving end (as there may be some details missing).
- Gossip traps the person(s) involved in it in a vicious cycle of shame and humiliation and it becomes difficult for them to come out of it without feeling guilty.
- The person who frequently engages in gossip is likely to lose their own credibility in the long run, as others will not trust them with keeping their secrets. They may also begin to be viewed as jealous, by nature.
- The person who gossips becomes oblivious to the fact that they are hiding their own imperfections and insecurities by discussing others.
Strategies to Avoid Gossip
Gossip plays an inevitable part in our lives, however, by being mindful of it and reminding our children as well, we can aim to handle it in a non-destructive way. Here are some strategies that we can adopt and also teach our children to use, when caught in situations that may lead to gossip.
1. Question yourself.
Encourage yourself and your children to ask the following questions when you run smack into gossip:
- Do I know the person?
- Should I be talking about them?
- Will it hurt the person being talked about?
- Is the conversation going to help anybody in any way?
- Is there a real problem?
- How can I change the topic?
- Can I lead the conversation in a positive direction?
2. Identify the source of the gossip.
It is important to know whether the information being shared is being initiated by the person who is sharing it with you or if they have received it through another source. Identifying the source will help to understand whether it is worth giving it time or attention. If the source is not the person sharing it, you can politely tell them that you are not interested. If it is the person sharing the details, then you might want to do a quick check and question yourself (as in 1. above).
3. Confront the person.
One way to help ourselves and our children navigate through such situations is by being courageous enough to ask questions when someone engages with you in gossip. By confronting them with phrases such as 'Well, I have never witnessed such behavior or attitude from that person', or, 'I don't think I am in a position to comment on this because there is no way to validate this information,' can help stop the vicious cycle of gossip.
4. Leave matters to Allah.
This is perhaps the best thing to do when you find yourself in a situation where you are weak and feeling vulnerable. On the flip side of the coin, if someone has hurt you and you are thinking of seeking revenge by sharing your version of the story with others, then pause and rethink. Is it worth the effort? Will it really help serve you justice? It may lead you to humiliate the other person, which you might regret later. Therefore, by learning to calm ourselves down in such moments and leaving the matter to be judged to Allah, we can bring relief and peace to ourselves in the long run. Our beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, reminds us:
“Whoever conceals [the faults of] a Muslim, Allah will conceal [his faults] in this life and the Hereafter.”
In conclusion, let's strive to remove such social ills from our society by learning to recognize gossip, educating ourselves and our children against participating in it, and seeking alternatives to help us navigate successfully towards avoiding and indulging in it.
Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and mother of three boys. Always on the quest to learn, she is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. A writer in the making, she draws inspiration through deep conversations, laws of nature, and her own children. She and her family are currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.