On one of the last days of third grade, Rowan Chetner came home from school very upset: "She'd overheard gossip that a classmate was switching schools to avoid being around her," recalls her mom, Rebecca Eckler, of Toronto. "Even when I explained that the girl was changing schools because her family was moving, Rowan was still bawling over the fact that other kids would say that about her."
Ugly rumors, whispered secrets, and embarrassing comments start to spread like wildfire at school among 8- and 9-year-olds. "Kids this age use gossip to experiment with how much power and influence they have over others," explains Karin S. Frey, Ph.D., research associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "They also do it in an attempt to be more popular." Fortunately, you can help your child ditch the drama with this guide to the grapevine.
Separate Harmless Gab from Gossip
Your kid is probably talking to or possibly even texting her friends a lot more often. One Duke University study asked 60 pairs of fourth-grade girls to "play freely" for about 15 minutes. During that time, they gossiped about 24 different people on average. Most of what they said was harmless chatter ("I sat next to June at lunch today") or even compliments, but about three or four of the comments were negative and potentially hurtful ("She thinks she's all that!"). Let your child know that this type of gossip could hurt someone, much like teasing -- even though it's done out of the kid's earshot, explains study author Kristina McDonald, Ph.D. Her advice: "Role-play a few scenarios and ask your child how she would feel if she were talked about in that way."
Your child may think that if what he says is true -- and not merely his opinion or a rumor -- that it's not gossip, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship. Chatting about a child who failed a test, reporting who got sent to the principal's office, talking about who still needs help from the teacher tying her sneakers -- kids may not see anything wrong with sharing these types of tidbits. But, of course, that's not the case. While it's unrealistic for your child never to mention something about a classmate who isn't present, you can teach him about what topics are off-limits. Go over what issues could be sensitive (like divorce and other family situations), embarrassing (such as a bad grade, a crush, or getting sick in school), or misconstrued (saying a student was in the principal's office may lead others to believe he's in trouble) so that he knows to avoid discussing them.
You might be tempted to tell your child that talking about classmates behind their back won't make her more popular, but Dr. McDonald's study shows that at this age, it actually will: The kids who gossiped more were better liked by peers and their friendships were rated by observers as being closer. Instead, point out one of the biggest negative consequences of gossiping. "Tell your child, 'If you gossip a lot about other people, kids are more likely to gossip about you,'" says Dr. Frey. Also let her know that there are other ways besides gossiping to have close friendships, and that doing cool things with her buddies will be a lot more fun than sitting around yakking. Then suggest ideas such as coming up with a project for charity together, signing up for a sports team, or even forming a Minecraft club. Adds Dr. McDonald: "Helping your child and her friends find other entertaining things to do can be a natural way to discourage gossip behavior."
Stop The Spread
Even though some kids rarely start rumors, they may find it hard to resist listening to them or repeating them, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Explain to your child that the facts get mixed up as gossip spreads from person to person and that it's just as unkind to pass along rumors as it is to come up with them," she says. Propose comebacks for him to say the next time he's on the receiving end of a piece of gossip, like "Well, he only says nice things about you" or "That's really none of my business."
Also give your child advice about when he should alert the teacher about what he's heard. "Tell him that it's not tattling if someone could get hurt physically or emotionally by the gossip or if it involves doing something wrong, such as cheating on a test," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. And if your child feels embarrassed about filling in the teacher, you can drop her a note yourself to let her know what's going on.