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Stopping Rumors

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Oct 9, 2010

The Problem

  • How can I stop a classmate from gossiping or spreading rumors about my child?

Background: How Rumors Get Started

Gossip helps us learn about the misadventures of others in order to avoid the mistakes they make. It's mostly negative because people can learn more from negative instances.1

Children start to gossip as young as four or five years old. Younger children say things like, "Crandall smells bad," about a child who has poor hygiene. Older children are more likely to believe gossip than younger children because they are more likely to realize the utility of gossip as a learning tool.2 Rumors (negative information about someone) begin in the context of gossip. Denial is the best means to dispel the negative effects of rumors. The best denial has strong arguments about why the rumor isn't true and how the source of the rumor is not credible.3

Jenny is a fourth grader who was Elissa's friend and classmate. After a play date at Elissa's house, Elissa noticed that one of her turtles was missing. She decided that Jenny was responsible, although she had left the turtles outside her house, where anyone could take them. The next day, she spread the rumor that Jenny had stolen the turtle. Once the rumor started, most children repeated it to others who hadn't heard it. Many children believed the rumor. Some were unsure, but nevertheless told their friends about it. Many girls started to avoid Jenny because of this rumor. Only two of Jenny's close friends did not believe it and stuck by her. Children were talking about this for the next two weeks.

Social psychologists list three conditions that help a rumor to spread:4

  1. The children are uncertain about the event in question. If they know it didn't happen, they won't spread the rumor. A child with a reputation of being honest is unlikely to have a rumor spread about her stealing.
  2. The children don't care about how true the rumor is. The truth of the rumor doesn't matter to children who aren't Jenny's friends.
  3. The rumor is about an issue that worries the children: losing a treasured pet.

Solving the Problem: How to Stop a Rumor That Harms Your Child's Reputation

Rumors eventual die down by themselves, unless either the rumormonger or the victim does something to keep them going. Here are some approaches to try to have the rumor die down faster.

Step 1: Try to Talk to the Parent of the Child Who Started the Rumor

The best way to stop a rumor is to deal with the child who started it. If Jenny's mom has spoken to the parents of Jenny's playmates before or after each play date (see Chapter Twelve), then she will feel comfortable calling Elissa's mom:

Jenny's mom: I hear that Elissa lost one of her turtles. Is that true?
Elissa's mom: Yes. It happened the day Jenny was over.
Jenny's mom: Have you found it yet?
Elissa's mom: No. I stopped looking for it after about twenty minutes.
Jenny's mom: How do you suppose it was lost?
Elissa's mom: I don't know. It was outside. Maybe it wandered off.
Jenny's mom: Does Elissa think that Jenny took it?
Elissa's mom: She mentioned that.
Jenny's mom: We don't have any turtles here. You know me: I wouldn't tolerate her taking it.
Elissa's mom: That's true.
Jenny's mom: What concerns me is that a rumor has spread at school that Jenny took the turtle and they're all in a stew about it.
Elissa's mom: I'll talk to Elissa.
Jenny's mom: Thanks. That would be a great help.

Jenny's mom patiently and politely gathers information, and both moms are in agreement. Now Elissa's mom can stop Elissa from feeding the rumor. Go to step 2 only if this doesn't work.

Step 2: Talk to the Supervising Adult

It would indeed be a wonderful world if we could always talk out our problems directly with each other. But sometimes we can't, either because we don't know who started a rumor or the other parent will not listen to reason. Since this rumor is spreading in the classroom, the teacher is the ideal person to intervene. If she is unaware of what is going on, it is up to Jenny's mom to alert her. Here's how she does this:

Mom: Jenny is upset about a rumor being spread about her. Have you heard about it?
Teacher: No, I haven't, but it wouldn't be the first time this has happened. I have trouble with this every year.
Mom: The girls are talking about Jenny stealing a turtle from her playmate. I didn't notice any turtles at our house and the turtles were left out in front of the girl's house, where they could have walked away on their own. Jenny is very upset about it. Several other girls keep talking about this, and they are avoiding Jenny over it. Do you have any suggestions about what should be done to help this situation?

The important things Jenny's mom does are:

  • She avoids naming Elissa. Clearly she isn't going to start a rumor about Elissa.
  • She calmly explains how the rumor isn't true.
  • She calmly informs the teacher of Jenny's social situation.
  • She asks the teacher for help rather than telling the teacher what to do. Many school personnel will feel situations like this are their business if it impairs school work.

Jenny's mom stands a good chance of getting the teacher to help. In response, the teacher gives the class a lecture about spreading rumors: how they hurt kids whether or not they are true, and how false stories can be believed even when the person telling them has no firsthand knowledge of what happened. She prohibits all rumors. The rumors about Jenny stop, and Jenny's relationships with her classmates soon return to normal.

Jenny's teacher used an effective approach. If your child is facing the same problem and the teacher refuses to intervene, you will have to let the rumor die down of its own accord. In other words, say and do nothing more about it. Children forget eventually if nothing happens to remind them

The Next Step

You have used the most effective way to deal with rumors. Rumors like the one Elissa started can make children and parents feel helpless. Learning how to deal with rumormongers is an important life skill. The next chapter shows you how to help your child deal with being physically hurt by other children.

Notes

1 Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8, 111-121.

2 Kutler, A. F., Parker, J. G., & La Greca, A. M. (2002). Developmental and gender differences in preadolescents' judgements of the veracity of gossip. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 48, 105-132.

3 Bordia, P., DiFonzo, N., Haines, R., & Chaseling, E. (2005). Rumor denials as persuasive messages: Effects of personal relevance, source and message characteristics. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 1301-1331.

4 Rosnow, R. L. (1988). Rumor as communication: A contextualist approach. Journal of Communication, 38, 12-28.

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