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Children and Gossip

It’s generally understood that instilling respectable values in children is an adult responsibility. Sometimes, though, it’s the children who are reminding us of those values when we go astray.

Such was the case of little Opie Taylor when he taught a virtuous lesson to the adults in Mayberry on  “The Andy Griffith Show”. Alongside his friend Howie, the two 5th graders set out to publish the Mayberry Sun, their own small town newspaper. When initial sales of their paper are sluggish, the bumbling deputy Barney Fife encourages them to seek out “hot copy”, stories that will get people reading.

Opie and Howie set out to model their news after the local column, “Mayberry After Midnight”. Midnight is way past their bedtime, so the “youngins” have to rely upon eavesdropping to let them know what is going on around town. Pa, Barney and Aunt Bee were none the wiser.

Opie’s keen business sense guided them to give away the next publication for free, in an effort to attract readers and encourage them to purchase future copies. Andy “Pa” Taylor was proud of his son’s entrepreneurial spirit – until he reads his own careless words in black and white – that the preacher’s sermons are “ sometimes dry as dust.” Unbeknownst to the grown-ups, Opie and Howie had stealthily picked up on some of the town’s most scandalous gossip – that “Sue Grigsby’s blonde is right out of a bottle” and that “Mrs. Foster’s chicken a la king tastes like wallpaper paste.” Those private conversations aren’t intended for public consumption.

As Andy tries to set the boys straight about gossiping, he has a hard time educating them about why offhanded observations (a/k/a gossip) shouldn’t be repeated. Wisdom imparts on Aunt Bee, and she urges Andy and Barney that they shouldn’t be having these conversations in the first place; that adults should be examples for the children.

Of course, in sitcom world, the storyline needs to have juicy untruths, revealing information that isn’t intended for public knowledge, unsubstantiated misinformation and comments made out of spite or jealousy. Otherwise, just like the Mayberry Sun, no one would pay attention to it.

But, in real life we’re not competing for Emmy Awards, or living in a fictional world where you only need 20 minutes to solve the dilemmas of the day. The gossip that makes us laugh on “The Andy Griffith Show” could be hurtful and mean in real life. And, once those cutting words are expressed, you can never take them back. Even a sincere apology can’t completely undo the damage of gossip, because the ugly words have already spread like wildfire.

For victims of gossip, a common response is “Don’t pay attention to it.” or “Don’t let it get to you.” Trivializing the gossip says to a child victim that his feelings are wrong or unfounded. In reality, gossip is bullying, and if we don’t help address the problem, we become the problem.

The website, https://www.verywellfamily.com has some great tips for addressing gossiping with children, whether they are the victim or the perpetrator. Parents must be empathetic, and accept as real the pain or frustration your child feels from mean words or rumors. Sometimes journaling helps adolescents and teens sort out their feelings in a healthy way; outdoor physical activity such as hiking or bike riding can also help to manage stress. As a parent, it seems natural to want to rush in and fix everything – to get revenge on the source or call the school. Revenge is never the answer; and, realize that the school needs to be involved if the situation is intolerable or doesn’t improve after your child tried to address it. We help our children gain self-confidence by letting them handle problems, but some problems need adult intervention. Stay close enough to the situation to know when your child can’t resolve or rise about the problem without help.

The best way to help our children not to gossip is to refrain from doing it ourselves. Remember that whatever you repeat in the presence of a child might just find its way to an unintended place and garner unanticipated consequences.