When Gossip is Good (and silence not so much)

Talking about your kids to other people lets them "overhear" what you think about them

I recount for my kids at dinner every day the stories I tell other people about them. "I brag about you guys all the time, and I tell my friends and co-workers how wonderful and smart you are." I say. Usually, when I say this my kids smile and seem to sit up a little straighter. But one day, John asked worriedly, "Mom, do you think it's such a good idea to talk about us like that so much? Do you think it might make other people feel bad if they don't have great kids like us?" I had to stop and think about it for a moment. Should I worry about that? I shrugged and replied, "I think most people understand that when you have something wonderful in your life, you can't help talking about it." He seemed satisfied with that response, and continued eating his dinner -- after he sat up a little straighter.

So, at this point, I think I should stop and say a sincere "I'm sorry and thank you!" to all the Facebook friends and family who have tolerated my bragging about my kids and have even joined in by sending congratulations, hearts, thumbs up and smiling faces. You were all a part of a strategic effort aimed, not at you but at my children, and I admit that I use you all shamelessly. You see, when my twins, Timothy and Tyler were about eight years old, they came home from school and said, "Mommy, how come you say we're wonderful and we're great, and then we go to school and we don't think the adults there think we are so great?" And their words broke my heart. I don't think anyone stood up and told my little Black boys that they were less valuable than anyone else. But somehow they got that message loud and clear, and it deeply troubled them. I resolved that every day I would pour back into my kids messages that counter the ones they get at school, in the media, and out and about in the community. If I could, I would paint in huge black letters on my house's white siding, "You are great, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!" But, realizing my neighbors might not appreciate this, I decided to look for other ways to tell my kids every day about their inherent greatness. So I let them overhear me "gossiping" about them.

Research suggests that parental messages play a critical role in African-American youth development, and this is particularly the case with boys. Black boys who receive consistent affirmations about their self-worth are more academically self-motivated and successful. But how many times can you tell your kids how wonderful they are? The answer is: every opportunity you get. And the more they hear it when they are least expecting it, the better. Gossiping, or talking about them to others, is a great way to do it. Let your kids overhear you talking on the phone about the really thoughtful questions they ask. They will ask even more thoughtful questions. Whisper to your friends as your kids walk past about they ways in which you have seen them operate with integrity. They will show even more integrity. Post on Facebook something really creative they did. They will express their creativity even more.

The result of this gossiping is that you create a self-fulfilling prophecy for your kids' lives. The people around you will instinctively treat them as more valuable and worthy simply because you do. Your kids will recognize when they are held in high esteem, in the same way they recognize when they are not. Your actions will counter the negative messages they get everyday and, ultimately, your opinion will be more valuable.

Gossiping about your kids requires a plan. Here are some things to consider:

  1. You need to really know your kids, and get in touch with their unique characteristics, values and habits. You don't want to just tell your kids they are great, you want to tell them how and why they are great. That way, you are highlighting the attitudes and behaviors you want to encourage and promote.

  2. Focus particularly on areas in which your kids may have struggled and had a success. For example, my daughter's first year of high school was really tough, but she began to figure things out by tenth grade. I spent a lot of time bragging about how determined she had been to overcome her challenges, and how much I admired her strength of character during that difficult time. It is important to teach kids that when you work through a challenge to achieve success, you should celebrate the victory and apply lessons learned to the next challenge.

  3. Focus on things your kids can change. Don't talk about their looks or their intellect. Instead, talk about the creativity with which they choose their outfits, the resilience they show in the face of challenges, or the kindness with which they helped a troubled classmate.

  4. Always be truthful. Kids know what they did well and what they did not, and they can spot inauthenticity a mile away. Find even the smallest thing to brag about. Perhaps it is that your child was particularly helpful with chores after dinner. Perhaps it is that your teenager showed great trustworthiness by texting to check in when she got to the movies with her friends. Tell anyone who will listen about it, and how you felt about it (proud, relieved, thankful, etc.).

  5. Enlist willing accomplices. Grandparents and extended family are great candidates, because they are often interested in what your kids are doing. Encourage them to mention to your kids the great things you have told them.

  6. Guard your kids from people who will undo all your hard work. I am ruthlessly protective of my kids' sense of self-worth. It is completely appropriate to interrupt friends and family who want to talk about your kids' flaws. There is a time and a place for correcting behavior, but promoting positive behavior is far more effective and can be very powerful in extinguishing negative behaviors.

  7. Most of all, congratulate yourself for the wonderful human being you are raising. Parenting is difficult, so you need all the accolades you can get. You may be very surprised someday to hear your kids gossiping about you.

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