I was recently keeping a friend company while she hosted a slumber party for her daughter and a dozen of her daughter’s middle school friends. There is something wildly fascinating about observing teen girls I am completely unacquainted with. I’ve hosted my fair share of slumber parties and always find myself too involved in the details of the evening to really pay attention to their conversations. Does everyone have enough to eat? There are nuts in these brownies! Is anyone allergic to nuts? Are all the kids having fun?
With my mind unoccupied and a cup of tea in my hand, I was free to enjoy the energy of a group of girlfriends wearing their coziest socks on a Saturday night with the promise of cake and ice cream in their future. As expected, their conversations covered TV shows, music, pop celebrity news, and the completely unfair homework assignments of one English teacher in particular. But, they also discussed their peers (most of whom were not present at this party). And while many of them shared innocuous details about friends and situations they had in common, the discussion strayed into the territory of gossip from time to time.
Gossip is a funny thing, especially during a time in a young person’s life when social circles and a sense of belonging are critical to emotional wellbeing. Gossip can create a sense of closeness, a feeling of being on the inside of things. Despite their best efforts to stand out and march to the beat of their own individual drums, no teen wants to be on the outside. Therefore, they are drawn to the intimacy that is created by sharing salacious or secret details they know about someone else.
It says in the Bible, “Who is the man who desires life and loves days that he may see good in them? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking negatively. Refrain from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:13-15)
When we gossip, we put a kind of shell around our soul that blocks us from the blessings that are meant for us. Instead of gossip we can commit to see the good, as the Creator does. For the Creator sees the ultimate perfection in everything and loves us unconditionally. To see the bad, is like misaligning ourselves from the source of all goodness.
The kabbalists have a term for gossip: lashon hara, or evil speech. They teach that it is the worst form of darkness. I think the term, “evil speech,” is fitting, because it ropes together anything negative that comes out of your mouth – not just gossip. It goes beyond simply speaking negatively about someone; it includes saying things in anger, and talking negatively about ourselves.
Rav Berg said, “Never let negative things enter your mind nor come out of your mouth.”
We can’t expect kids to eliminate gossip altogether. But, what we can do is teach them how to speak and help them distinguish between sharing funny, interesting, or exciting news, and spreading harmful or damaging information.
A common defense I’ve heard young people use is this: “But it’s not gossip if it’s my opinion. I’m just being honest!”
Well, no, actually.
One of the biggest pitfalls of lashon hara is believing we’re justified in our judgments of others. We form opinions based on what we see (real or imagined) and then feel righteous about our judgments. That fuels us in thinking our negative talk is justified, that the other person has it coming. The truth is what we put out there ALWAYS comes back to us. And usually when we least expect it – a hard lesson for adolescents to accept.
Of course, everyone has the ability to make their own assessment of someone’s character. Though, this is easier said than done. We often underestimate the influence we have over others. Once we share an unsavory detail about someone, it can be hard for those around us to shake that impression – even if it turns out later to be completely unfounded. In addition, when we gossip, we have violated someone’s privacy. Simply put, if it’s not about ourselves, it’s not our story to tell.
It’s not enough to stay silent, hoping a rumor will fade away. Not only are we responsible for what we say and do, but also for what we allow to unfold around us. Kabbalists teach that consciousness is everything. That means recognizing negative situations and taking action when necessary. Sometimes that action is to remove ourselves from a negative situation, while other times it may be to speak up and say we feel such conversations are hurtful. But when we hear others gossiping, then stand by, listen, and say nothing, we are still engaging in lashon hara – meaning, if you weren’t listening, which is still participating, then the person speaking gossip would have no one to say it to. This isn’t easy for kids. But if we encourage them to take responsibility for the gossip around them, they can rise to the challenge.
Sometimes a small boost of positivity is enough to shift the energy around us. If we can teach our children to see the good in others, it will naturally change the way they speak about others. I want my children to be the kind of people who resist lashon hara by sharing positivity. Something as simple as, “She’s always been very friendly to me,” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” may be enough to stop the negative words from flowing. Even if we suspect the worst, we are better off giving people the benefit of the doubt.
With our support, children can learn to think before speaking. There is a poster hanging in my preschool-aged daughter’s classroom that reads:
Before you speak:
T = Is it True?
H = Is it Helpful?
I = Is it Inspiring?
N = Is is Necessary?
K = Is it Kind?
I love this. It emphasizes kindness and can prevent so much negativity from being released into the world.
The hardest part about teaching our children the dangers of evil speech may be modeling it ourselves. We cannot expect them to make good choices concerning gossip when they see us listen to, engage in, or share gossip ourselves. Even spreading good news (when it belongs to someone else) can be problematic, because it can be difficult for children to understand what constitutes harmful sharing. They are always watching us. As much as pre-teens and teens may try to assert their independence, the way they learn to interact with the world begins with their parents and caregivers.
After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say, you aren’t trying hard enough.