Recent studies estimate that we gossip 52 minutes per day, but the majority of it is the sharing of neutral social information, not toxic or judgmental commentary, according to NPR. Just 15 percent of the time spent gossiping involves a negative judgment from the speaker. Many subtle patterns of behavior during childhood with peer groups shape our behavior as adults.
In an interview with NPR, Williams College psychologist Jeremy Cone said that despite the large amount of time we spend talking about those who aren’t present, “much of it is just documenting facts, sharing information.” We may call our parents to tell them their grandchild got his or her first tooth, or we tell a group of coworkers in a meeting that another colleague will be five minutes late due to traffic. As social creatures, humans first learn about social roles, reputations, and more during peer-group interactions during childhood, within groups of two or more children.
What Is Harmless Gossip?
When we consider gossip, scenes of telling secrets and spreading false rumors come to mind. However, according to author and clinical psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, gossip is defined as merely “talking to someone about a third person.”
“Now, gossip can be done maliciously, but it’s often done with no intention to hurt,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. “For children, especially, it can serve some important social functions. Gossip can explain and reinforce group norms about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior, and it can create a sense of intimacy.” Even gossip that sounds malicious is sometimes intended as a neutral commentary that brings the children closer.
Dr. Kennedy-Moore gives an example of one child factually telling another that a third child, who isn’t present, isn’t contributing to a group project. The second child agrees and says it isn’t fair that the two of them are doing all of the work. Although this sounds mean, the two children have both, according to Dr. Kennedy-Moore, “confirmed [their] shared values of hard work and pitching in and feel closer because they’ve shared this private opinion.” If the children are focused on getting the project done and acting in the interest of fairness, rather than badmouthing the person not present, they may form a bond. They may even feel courageous enough to speak with the third child and finish the project as a group, enhancing the bond between all three of them.
Socially Rejected Children and Gossip
As children gossip, more popular and less popular kids eventually surface. Unfortunately, children who are increasingly unpopular may find themselves rejected socially by most of their peers. In their efforts to help these children, researchers have identified four kinds of socially rejected children.
For the first kind of socially rejected children: “Many rejected children are aggressive and prone to angry outbursts,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. “Their peers are likely to find these outbursts annoying or scary and so they avoid them.” However, she said, other braver kids will provoke angry kids, and so the angry kids need help learning to deal with conflicts and how to control their anger.
A second type of socially rejected children are withdrawn, anxious children, who neither show nor respond to friendly gestures. These kids, Dr. Kennedy-Moore said, need support and guidance from adults to gain confidence to engage in social groups.
A third type are kids who are socially rejected because they’re “out of sync” with their peer groups, meaning they either have poor hygiene or they’ve developed “odd or babyish habits,” according to Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “This is a solvable problem,” she said. “If your child hasn’t yet embraced cleanliness, you may need to institute a ‘trust but verify’ policy. Give them a whiff before they leave the house; if they don’t pass muster, send them back to try again.”
And the fourth type includes very emotional kids. They cry or get sad far more than other kids; and unfortunately, other kids find it off-putting. The larger problem is that the time spent crying is time not spent engaging socially, which is also bad for the child. “If this sounds like your child, you may want to work with him to come up with a plan of things to do when he feels like crying, but he’s in public so he knows he really shouldn’t,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. “These things could include deep breathing, counting, or doing mental math. He could also try silently telling himself encouraging statements like ‘This will pass’ or ‘I’m OK; I can handle this.'”
All age groups gossip. Most gossip is simply a nontoxic method of sharing news about a person who is not present to share the information themselves. As young children, we learn to gossip shortly after we learn to speak. Malicious gossip, among children, tends to focus around children who are socially rejected from peer groups due to behavioral issues or lack of social skills for peer interaction. Fortunately, identifiers exist to recognize which children are being socially rejected. There are plenty of methods available to help those children to improve their social standing among their peers.
Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore contributed to this article. Dr. Kennedy-Moore is an author and clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and children’s feelings and friendships in her Princeton, NJ, practice. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Northwestern University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Stony Brook University.