It’s August now, and summer freedom has given way to routines, dress codes, and extracurricular commitments. Back to school means a regular daily rhythm, a focus on learning, and—for many—a return to harried and chaotic mornings. But being back in the hallway, in the classroom, and on the practice field brings something else to the forefront that may have taken a break over the summer: gossip. Middle and high schools are breeding grounds for gossip and hurtful rumors.
Young people struggle with insecurity and crave belonging. Many will go along with a conversation so as not to make waves, even when they are uncomfortable with the topic. Before they realize it they are gossiping, passing along sensitive information about their peers, and spreading the hurt like wildfire. And while gossip is hardly unique to teens, the school setting, in which young people are constantly surrounded by hundreds of peers (including some with whom they just don’t get along), lends itself to a looseness with words and loss of self-control. Spreading a nasty rumor can be a way to get back at someone who hurt us, a way to impress a certain person or group, or even just a conversation starter.
A Fine Line
The truth about gossip is that we all walk a fine line. Obviously, talking about other people is not in and of itself a problem. Even as you read this, someone somewhere is probably talking about you. Maybe your parents are wondering aloud how you’re doing. Maybe your family is asking where you are. Maybe a friend is lifting you up in prayer at his or her church. We use our words to encourage, pray for, inform, and bless one another.
But we can also use our words to tear down, hurt, and demean one another. The differences between casual conversation and destructive gossip are often subtle. It can be difficult to tell when something we say or pass along is hurtful. How do we know where the line is? And how do we help teens avoid gossip and make godly choices with their speech?
As followers of Jesus we are called to use our words to glorify and tell others about him. This doesn’t mean that every word out of our mouth needs to be about Jesus; but it does mean that we should be faithful to Christ’s teachings in all that we say.
The Bible is not at all silent when it comes to the topic of gossip. The Book of Proverbs warns us against meddling, slander, and creating discord (see 6:16-19; 19:5; 26:17). James tells us that the tongue is a “small fire” that can set an entire forest on fire (see 3:5-6). First John 4:20 says that we cannot love God if we do not also love one another. Love involves the way that we talk to and about one another.
When youth find themselves in a gossipy conversation, they can follow a simple, three-step plan: First, they need to distinguish between what is gossip and what is healthy conversation. Second, they must speak out when they know that lies are being told or when the conversation turns negative. And the third step is to choose kindness and walk away from the situation.
Young people can draw on the Holy Spirit’s power to resist the temptation to participate in gossip and other destructive speech. But they can do more. They can speak truth and love into situations that might otherwise become deceitful and destructive. Youth need to feel empowered to use their speech to build up others, tell the truth, and share God’s love.