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Stopping Lashon Hara

May 8, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

A primer on how to raise our children to look at the positive and speak well about others.

Words Are Powerful

Speech -- the ability to convey ideas and feelings through words -- is to human beings. It can be a tremendous blessing, but it's also ripe for abuse.

The words our children choose to use in expressing themselves help create their personal window on the world.

Positive forms of expression can help our children grow into positive, optimistic people who view the world around them with generous and hopeful eyes. Negative forms of expression, such as defamatory, mean-spirited speech, will cultivate in them a negative, cynical view of the world.

Speech That Is Evil

It's easy to fall prey to a destructive pattern of speaking badly about others and gossiping -- to the point where it becomes a recreational activity! In order to enjoy the many people in our lives, we have to stop verbalizing the negativity and focus on their positive virtues. This takes a lot of effort but is essential in raising happy children.

If we're always finding fault, we will naturally be dissatisfied, disappointed and displeased, and so will be our children.

Raising happy children requires us to impart to our offspring the ability to look at everything positively --situations, places and material objects. Most important of all is how they view people.

Torah calls "evil language" anything negative, even if it's true.

The Hebrew term for speaking badly of others is called lashon hara, literally "evil language." Interestingly, the Torah calls "evil language" anything negative, even if it's true. (Slander -- malicious, false information is called motzi shem ra, literally "giving another a bad name.")

In sharp contrast to the Western adage about sticks and stones not hurting, Judaism looks very gravely upon misuse of speech. Our tradition teaches that lashon hara can destroy many lives, even unintentionally, in one fell swoop:

  • the person speaking,
  • the person spoken about,
  • and the person spoken to.

Let's look at why.

  • The person speaking: Although you briefly become the center of attention when you dish out a juicy piece of gossip, in the long run people start mistrusting you. "Gee, I wonder what she says about me when I'm not around." People don't trust gossips and will avoid confiding in you. In the end, you're killing your own reputation. Furthermore, because you are misusing the gift of speech that God gave you, you are also lessened in His eyes.
  • The person spoken about: The person under discussion is, of course, being killed in everyone's eyes. Whether the information is true or false, it is hard to take back defamatory words already spoken and undo the character assassination already committed. That person's reputation is forever blemished.
  • The person spoken to: Interestingly enough, this is the person who is the most culpable, even though s/he is seemingly the innocent one. All s/he did was listen! But the Talmud says that listening to lashon hara is even worse than speaking it; the person had the power to stop it and didn't. Now the transgression is complete.

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course, there are times we are all owed to speak share negative information about others; in fact, there are times it is an obligation to do so. For example - when a friend is about to be become financially involved with a person we know to be unethical, or seriously dating a person we know to be abusive or otherwise unsuitable. Or when a child has information that will prevent harm from occurring.

Common Fallacies

Beware of the excuses children and adults often use for speaking lashon hara:

  • "But it's true!" Lashon hara specifically refers to sharing derogatory information when it is true. Spreading vicious lies is far worse!
  • "If she were here I would say it to her face." Maybe you would, and maybe you wouldn't. In any case, it is still forbidden.
  • "Everyone knows about it." Does this justify you adding fuel to the fire? Even if it is on the front page of the newspaper, you are still forbidden to speak about it.

Parenting Tools

Teaching our children to avoid speaking lashon hara takes a concerted effort. Experiment with the following tools:

  1. Teach by example. Showing children that it's a priority for you is perhaps the most important lesson. Don't let them hear your gossiping with your friends or relatives. Don't let them hear you laughing at other people's expense. Even better than "don't let them hear you" is not doing it -- whether they're in earshot or not.
  2. Discuss the importance of avoiding lashon hara. Help your children identify what is and isn't proper speech. Talk about how improper speech can hurt others and how it hurts the person speaking lashon hara. There are a number of excellent Jewish books that can help you.
  3. Discourage "tattling." When your kids come to "tell on" someone, tell them you aren't interested in reports of someone else's bad behavior, but that you're available if they need help or advice.
  4. Get in the habit of not using names. There's no need for you to know the names of problem students at school unless you'll have a direct role in addressing the issue. Focus the discussion on your child's feelings, worries and concerns. If he or she needs protection that requires your intervention, tell him or her that it is proper to tell you the name of the offending child.
  5. Don't fall into the trap of casual lashon hara. At dinner and at other family times, bring books to the table to discuss or talk about current events. When you discuss what happened in each person's day, focus on what they learned that day and how they felt. Show your children that there are more interesting things to talk about than other people's poor behavior.
  6. Give positive reinforcement. Be sure to commend your kids when they manage to tell you about school or neighborhood problems without mentioning who was involved. Let them know that you're proud of them - and that God is too.
  7. Reminders! Tape a reminder to the telephone: "No Lashon Hara!" Put up signs on the fridge and in other prominent locations around the house.
  8. Study it. Read a small section of the laws of lashon hara each day during dinner or at your Shabbat table. Encourage discussion and examples.

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