Q: Can you say something about believing gossip and making quick judgments about people that are based on someone else’s opinion? I continue getting myself into trouble by listening to my friends’ or neighbors’ opinions about someone I don’t know at all or, sometimes, haven’t even met yet. Then when I do meet the person, I’ve already made a judgment about them which often turns out to be totally wrong. Example: The gossip is about the person being mean, or dishonest, or doing something wrong, and after I get to know the person a while, I realize I have an entirely different view of them (usually positive). With several people, I later became friends with them, only to discover that the gossip was completely untrue and based on people spreading rumors for their own benefit.

It seems gossip can be a real problem. Thanks.

A: I agree, gossip can indeed be a real problem. It will be a part of our culture until the end of time. There is a perceived benefit to disclosing someone else’s personal information. Perhaps it creates a sense of power, having information that one thinks no one else knows. Sharing information with a trusted friend when searching for an objective perspective and some clarity on a troubling or confusing encounter or interaction with someone else is not gossiping. It’s quite a different matter when someone’s personal, confidential boundary and trust are violated. Example: A good friend shares a personal story, possibly regarding a relationship concern, a health issue, or financial challenges, etc., expecting total confidentiality. The friend hearing this information then reveals the story to others. It’s like the game “telephone” young children play at parties — one child whispers a statement to pass around the circle (each child whispering to the next), and by the time the last child voices the statement to the group, it has been spun into something quite different. Is this what happens with gossip?

From what you described, the gossip you heard caused you to form some “quick judgments” about others that ultimately proved false. This kind of gossip is insidious, seemingly born from one’s need to blemish another’s reputation, disseminating rumors to undermine that person. There are many possible reasons this occurs: jealousy, competition, resentment, hostility, and likely many more. There are also examples of people observing others — at work, in their neighborhood, amongst friends — and overstepping boundaries by discussing what they are doing, saying, where they’re going, or anything that seems interesting, important, or “scandalous.” There are times when gossip is merely about “filling in the blanks” when someone else’s life seems too elusive, mysterious. As you described, then opinions may be formed that are completely inaccurate.

My suggestion is to trust your own judgment about each person you meet, without listening to gossip, or allowing others’ comments to influence your view. I think you’ll develop more positive, caring friendships that way, eliminating the “trouble” you’ve continually encountered.

“It is easier to dam a river than to stop gossip.” — Moro

Q: I’m having ongoing problems with my son. He says I make all his decisions and he can never choose how to deal with an issue. I feel as the parent, the adult, I have many more years of experience and can save him heartache and making mistakes with my longer view of life. I told him he can decide for himself when he’s a parent. He doesn’t like that and has been fighting with me a lot about making more decisions on his own. I don’t want us to fight and yet I believe my perspective is right. What is your advice?

A: I suggest inviting your son to propose some ways to deal with the issue at hand. There’s nothing original about the idea that children really should be part of the problem-solving process when things go wrong, or, to be honest, that they should have a say about what happens to them at any time. I continually am amazed by how frequently parents disregard these possibilities, or overlook acting on them, or sometimes strongly resist them. Let’s consider why, and how, we can let children participate in making decisions.

If we believe that everyone should have some control over their own lives, children shouldn’t have to wait until adulthood. That said, of course there need to be some limits with how much control and what kind, with so many decisions necessary to make for them, particularly when they’re young. However, that should not undermine a basic principle: allow children to make decisions on matters that directly concern them, unless there’s a very compelling reason to override that. When we do reverse their decision, we must be ready to justify exactly why that child should not be permitted to choose. It’s important to understand that there are various troublesome effects that surface when children feel they’re overcontrolled by their parents. If we democratically approach choices to be made, allowing our children to express their individual perspective, we not only learn a great deal about their view, we also help them to feel confident, included, that their opinion matters to us.

People don’t grow or excel when they feel powerless. There are simply benefits to having the chance to choose, or to being part of the solution. Obviously, with safety issues, or decisions that are non-negotiable (which will vary from one family to another), we may need to make the choice. However, whenever it’s possible, we should defer to our children to choose how to deal with a situation. When we avoid the temptation to rely on control, while also going out of our way to help them experience a sense of autonomy, our children are more inclined to follow through with what we ask of them and less inclined to misbehave. As one educator so aptly said: “The way children learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”

It sounds like your son is fighting with you because he’s trying to be heard and understood. His need for some autonomy is evident. Consider if something in your own childhood has created some fear, which prevents you from sharing power with him. Perhaps you feel if you don’t make all the decisions, he won’t be safe, something bad could happen to him. Exploring your own issues of trust, and whether you were allowed to make decisions growing up, may bring some clarity to what makes this such a compelling issue. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, children do well if they can. Helping them to be part of the solution by problem-solving with them, rather than seeing them as the problem, empowers them. Children who are empowered are much more likely to constructively confront circumstances that are disempowering. As parents, we are in the best position to empower them, as long as we’re willing to limit our use of power over them.