Last updated on Feb 1st, 2021 at 01:35 pm

Did you know that we spend, on average, 52 minutes each day gossiping about others? That’s according to a study by the University of California, USA, on the dynamics of this universal activity. The results, which were reported in Science Daily earlier this year, also revealed that while everyone talks about others, younger people are far more likely to engage in negative gossip – and this, says clinical psychologist Sumari van Rooyen, can start as early as the age of three!

“What’s important to remember about gossiping is that it’s a normal activity. It happens on every playground and in every classroom, which is why every parent can relate to it,” she says.

‘Mary’s my friend; Jane is too ugly.’ ‘Mikey poos his pants, he stinks.’ ‘Nicky failed the arithmetic test because she’s so stupid.’ This type of talk, Sumari explains, is the start of gossiping and forms part of every child’s vocabulary. And although adults often find the things kids say to and about each other cruel, you need to understand that what they’re doing is making sense of relationships by playing with others, pushing boundaries and testing limits.

“Knowing how to gossip is actually a very important developmental phase for your child, which is why special navigation and guidance from you as a parent are so essential,” says Sumari.

Subscribe to our Free Daily All4Women Newsletter to enter

The art of positive gossip

We all want to raise socially intelligent kids who are able to belong, interpret, predict and influence their social relationships. Saying something like: “Gossiping is bad – stop doing it, or else!” means missing out on a valuable opportunity to guide your child through a very important milestone. Teaching your child the ‘art of gossiping’, where they talk about others in a way that will benefit them socially, will give them a wonderful life skill. The aim is to encourage them to talk about what others have done well, in a way that’s respectful and trustworthy, in order to build relationship, rather than jeopardise them,” says Sumari.

So how exactly do you do this? Sumari and child therapist Orli Zaacks offer the following tips:

Start early

By the age of four, most children have grown greatly in empathy, explains Sumari. “The way they talk about friends and what they understand about the effect of words is much more sophisticated. It’s never too early to help your child develop good social intelligence and empathy. You can do this by being involved in their relationships, learning the names of their friends, chatting to their teachers, organising play dates, and listening to the way they talk to and about their friends.”

 ALSO SEE: 4 ways to teach your children empathy

Focus on the positive

Teach your child how to distinguish between positive and negative gossip. Sumari suggests using practical examples that include your child to make this clear from a young age. You could say something like: ‘It’s not nice to say that Mikey stinks. How would you feel if someone said you stink?’ Then you use a positive example of gossiping, such as: ‘Do you think Jane would mind if you told your friends how good she is at drawing? No, that would make her feel good. Just like it would make you feel good if someone said that you sing nicely or that you got a gold star from the teacher today.’

Reinforce kindness

It’s important to teach your child the difference between making damaging comments and talking positively about others, says Orli. “When we talk about someone else in a positive, loving way, those words can boost that person’s self-esteem. Emphasise the importance of treating others the way you’d like to be treated and promote a constructive form of gossip by encouraging your child to say kind things about their friends. Set a good example by saying things like: “Josh is so good at soccer! Did you see how he scored that goal?” or “I’m so proud of Jessica, she made such a lovely picture at school today.”

Use the six magic words

Psychologists agree that the best phrase to teach your child to use when someone’s trying to involve them in a negative conversation about others is: ‘Why are you telling me this?’

“This simple phrase interrupts the flow of conversation, forcing the gossiper to face the fact that you don’t wish to be involved and that you’re not happy with the direction the conversation’s going,” says Sumari. “Teach your child always to respond to negative talk using these words in eye.”

She adds that your child can go a step further and follow this up with comments like: ‘I don’t want to talk about this’, ‘Go and tell Mikey/Jane/Nicky what you’re saying about them, don’t tell me’ or ‘I think you must talk to the teacher about this.’

Say nothing at all

While you should encourage your child to stay away from children who talk badly about others, sometimes this isn’t possible, explains Orli. “We all have a choice when it comes to engaging in hurtful, negative talk about someone else, so help your child understand that they can choose to ignore what’s being said – and, if they do hear hurtful gossip, not to repeat it. Explain in simple words that if anyone talks unkindly about someone else, the best thing to do is not get involved in the conversation and to just keep quiet. Walking away is another good option.”

Walk the talk

As a parent, you’re your child’s most important role model, so it’s essential to lead by example, explains Orli. “If you’re trying to discourage your child from gossiping, think long and hard about the way you talk about others when your child’s around. Children tend to copy-and-paste everything adults do – particularly their parents – which is why it’s so important to honestly assess whether your own behaviour illustrates the way you’d like your child to behave. It’s essential to communicate with kids in a mature, transparent and non-judgemental way, so that they learn how to confront and communicate their own feelings maturely. If your child’s within earshot when you’re with your friends, avoid talking about other moms or teachers in a negative way. If you feel the need to voice criticism or vent about somebody else, make a point of doing so when your child’s not in your presence.”

More about the experts:

Sumari van Rooyen is a registered Clinical Psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and Psychotherapist in private practice. Learn more about Sumari van Rooyen here.

Orli Zaacks is Clinical Social Worker and Child Therapist located in Sandton. Learn more about Orli Zaacks here.