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Stopping Lashon Hara

Stopping Lashon Hara

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 unique 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.

August 17, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 19

(18) Renaye, May 18, 2015 2:26 AM

Nuanced Concept

Essentially, we may be looking at the difference between salacious defamation and necessary information. I don't find the boundary easy to negotiate, but important to explore in order to refine my behavior. I don't maliciously gossip, but I do "analyze" others behaviors and make the occasional disparaging remark. Sometimes I talk about how wonderful somebody is but have come to understand that this is problematic too.

(17) Anonymous, October 3, 2013 4:08 PM

being careful with even positive words

Really appreciate this article - thank you - a blessing! Just one thing I would like to add is that there are times when even positive words can cause problems. Not just bragging, but for example, when a boss praises an employee in front of the other employees, this can cause problems for the one praised. Witnessed this more than once in workplaces where office politics and, of course, gossip were big factors.

(16) lk, February 3, 2012 5:31 PM

dont agree

it says not to discuss things even if its on the front page and then suggests to do so. Humor is always at someones expiense- no matter what-- examine that closely. children who are taught not to speak ill of others especially by tattling could be being abused.. but they cant say so even though its true.

(15) TMay, August 13, 2011 8:52 PM

disagree with some

I disagree with #3 and with #4.Children grow up very quickly and people change and children who looked fresh faced and wonderful can develop habits that make them a bad influence on children, like drinking alcohol, as an example, and if the parent does not know, they can be happily go about their life without realizing that their child is being influenced with behavior that can be life threatening and threatening the lives of other people, and then instead of a problem being dealt with while it is small, one is dealing with a problem that is huge and which impacts the child, his family and others. There is an old adage, that it is better to deal with an acorn than with a mighty oak. Once someone said to me, when you look at a tragedy, ask how many steps backward would you have to go so that the tragedy did not occur because that is where the decision in the instant has to be changed. That was in the context of a scuba diving lesson talking about scuba deaths and he was giving examples of going for another dive, when tired, when oxygen is low, when equipment is faulty, when weather is bad, when companions are not available for a buddy system, when companions are not trained nor wise, etc. However it applies to so many situations. We have cliffs over the ocean with fences and with signs saying not to cross the fence because of danger and yet every year we have deaths caused by people who choose to cross the fence. And I have talked to teenagers as the decision is being made on more than one occasion and told them about the dangers and some of the group spoke up and said they had had reservations but hadn't spoken up. They were not listening to their little voice but going with the group. In contrast, a warning to a father about choosing to have his young children play on wet rocks in the waves resulted in no change to the behavior and it only takes one wave to knock a child's head against the rocks while there are miles of harmless sand that can be played with.

(14) Anonymous, August 3, 2011 9:44 PM

Another view of "tattling"

The negative side of discouraging "tattling" is that children do not report destructive abuses, thinking they will be criticized for "tattling"! I think it is more safe for the adult to listen to the complaint and use mature judgement in handling it. (When my neighbor's daughter tried to "choke" my daughter, the mother told my daughter she was "tattling" and would not listen! So my daughter was afraid to tell me, but her brother did! The mother insisted it was my daughter's problem, so I just marked her off the "friend list"!)

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