Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Educators and Social Workers on Gossip

Those who work with young people, including social workers, educational theorists, and parenting experts, have tried to equip youth, especially girls, to navigate the hurtful things said about them during their adolescence. This equipping can begin at even earlier ages. Joy Berry’s Let’s Talk about Gossiping, is a picture book which illustrates a simple definition of gossip and a list of “do’s and don’ts” for small children.1

But it is during the turbulent teenage years that issues of gossip can become life dominating and future determining. Catherine Rondina has produced an illustrated handbook, much like a comic book for teens, entitled Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around.2 Each picture tells a story. “Whenever private or negative things are discussed behind someone’s back, it’s gossip. It doesn’t matter whether the information is true or false, whether you start the rumour or just keep it going, if it doesn’t stop its travels with you, you’re gossiping.”3

Rondina’s book is creative, including quizzes, advice-column-style questions and answers, and even case studies. “While your friend Oscar is away over summer vacation, someone starts a rumour that he is gay. You hear the gossip going around. What should you do?”4 Her book is also practical, dishing out lists of sound advice and motivation to change. “Hey, gossip can be a really nasty thing. If you go around telling stories that you’re not sure are true, sooner or later no one will believe anything you tell them! . . . Once your friends realize they can’t trust you to keep a secret, they’ll never tell you anything personal again. Before long, you won’t have friends left to gossip about.”5

Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around reminds me of the book of Proverbs, pithy, vividly illustrated, aimed at younger people, and immediately applicable. If it has a downside, it is that contemporary, comic-book style illustrations go quickly out of style. And as a completely secular book, it is limited to a very temporal value. Without the fear of the Lord, true wisdom never really gets started (Prov 1:7).

Rosalind Wiseman wants to empower parents, especially mothers, to equip their own daughters against malicious gossip. In Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, Wiseman claims, “99.99 percent of girls gossip, including your daughter. The longer and more adamantly you deny this fact, the worse of a gossip she’ll be.”6 Wiseman wants mothers to wise up and get busy.

I’ll give you more strategies so you’ll know which battles to fight for her and which ones you should let her fight on her own. But I’ll also challenge you to take action when your daughter is the one who starts the rumors. Most girls who are gossiped about, gossip themselves. It’s more than probable that your daughter has been cruel to someone else. It’s up to you to teach her differently.7

Wiseman’s strategies start with understanding how adolescent girls are suffering at each other’s hands. She narrates typical gossip scenarios of contemporary teens and categorizes various important types of girls within juvenile social strata, such as “Queen Bees,” “Wannabes,” and “RMGs,” that is, “Really Mean Girls.”8 She stresses that this is very important to America’s daughters.

When your daughter reports being humiliated by gossip at school, don’t say ‘It’s not a big deal; no one noticed but you’ or ‘Don’t worry, everyone will have forgotten about it by tomorrow.’ As far as she’s concerned, there is no tomorrow. She needs you to understand that she’s hurting now, and it is a big deal. Try to convince her otherwise, and she’ll think you’re hopelessly out of touch.9

After establishing supportive empathy, Wiseman then lays out five options for mothers to offer to their daughters if they’ve been the subject of gossip. “Your daughter can confront the RMG. She can ask a teacher or counselor for help. You can call the RMG’s parents. You can talk to the teacher. You can talk to an administrator.”10 Wiseman offers sample scripts for mothers to use for each option. Moreover, she also teaches mothers what to do and say if their daughter is the offending party.11

There is much to commend in Wiseman’s approach to gossip. She helps parents to take their daughters’ experiences seriously and to take responsibility for resolving their own problems. Her advice about apologies, for example, is very good, including not putting “spin” on their actions, not getting in “last licks” during the apology, not using qualifiers such as “but” while apologizing, and not expecting reciprocation.12

Wiseman is at her best when she is describing teenage life. A mom who reads Queen Bees and Wannabes will have her eyes opened to what many girls are experiencing daily. But like most secular helping books, the advice is ultimately limited to self-esteem and empowerment. Wiseman cannot really go to the heart of things. While counsel in the chapter on “Nasty Girls: Teasing, Gossip, and Reputations” is fairly sound,13 the advice throughout the rest of book is more sketchy and settles for too little in its aspirations for girls (Prov 31:10-31, 1 Pet 3:1-6, Titus 2:4-5).

1Joy Berry, Let’s Talk About Gossiping (Fallbrook: Living Skills Press, 1984).
2Catherine Rondina, Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2004).
3Ibid., 5.
4Catherine Rondina, Gossip: Deal With It Before Word Gets Around (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2004), 28. The answer, written upside-down on the page, is to inform Oscar, work with him to come up with a response, and tell a helpful adult.
5Ibid., 18.
6Rosalind Wiseman, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 112.
8Ibid., 138.
9Ibid., 122.
10Ibid., 138.
11Rosalind Wiseman, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter to Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 147-150.
12Ibid., 149.
13Ibid., 111-150.

Yesterday, we began listening to opponents of gossip, beginning with leaders in the business world.
Tomorrow, we will start interacting with Jewish religious teaching on the problem of gossip.