It started at the Brooklyn Jewish Children's Museum. We were on the third floor, in the exhibit titled "World of Good." My daughter picked up a toy pay phone attached to the wall; above it, an animated version of Normal Rockwell's The Gossips played whisper down the lane. The receiver blared, "Mrs. Applefield said Ron Jones' wife locked him out of the house…Can you believe it? Ron Jones and his wife might be getting a divorce." She giggled, stuck out her hip, twirled the cord around her finger. My 3-year-old began to imitate.

Okay, it was pretty darn cute. But as this was a "teaching moment," I tried to explain that what she was hearing was lashon hara--negative speech. Gossip. Margot widened her eyes. Talking about other people, especially behind their back. Huh? She flashed her dimple. The exhibit was designed to demonstrate what you're NOT supposed to do. According to Jewish law, lashon hara is a big sin. Huge. You're not even supposed to listen to it. Margot shot me a look, like I was one to talk, as we both recalled my morning bitch session to my sister about a mommy "friend" who habitually treated me like I was her babysitter. When I'd hung up the phone, Margot had asked, "What's a mooch?" 

I reddened, guilty as charged. 

Model Parenting

We all know children learn by watching. Habits and practices they witness at home will be incorporated and reproduced in the classroom, on the field, along the monkey bars. I am no model parent. In fact, I'm likely screwing them up in ways I don't even realize, ways that surely will come around to bite me in the ass. But at 5 and 3, my kids have made it this far--miraculously--without requiring a swish of soap in the maw. That's bound to change, however, if I don't.

With lashon hara it doesn't matter if what you're saying about the other person is true. In fact, it's usually true. (There's a separate no-no, motzi shem ra, for slander.) What may seem like healthy, harmless venting--who doesn't need to vent after another messy day in mommyland?--is considered particularly egregious when the person isn't present to defend his/herself. It says so right in the Book: "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people." (Leviticus, 19:16)

bullyWe live in a culture of bullying. Bad mouthing another within a child's earshot inadvertently sanctions name-calling, which starts freakishly young and can be long-lasting. According to the exhibit, damning words are like feathers burst from a pillow: you cannot recoup the damage any more than you can gather every last plume. A few times this year my sensitive kindergartner came off the bus sweaty and tearful, having been on the receiving end of teasing. Seeing Noah's crumpled face triggered my own lunchroom memories. Regardless of what's said about sticks and stones--names can burn forever.

Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?

Of course, when it's not busy flapping about others, my mouth resembles a toilet bowl. I know--I'm classy like that. While profanity is somewhat of a different issue and may not be verboten (if you clock yourself in the head with the edge of your child's scooter you won't be stricken for expressing yourself) it doesn't come with the Torah stamp of holy approval. I've come by my tongue honestly; my parents haven't said a nice word to each other in 42 years. Growing up we grunted and barked at each other at the dinner table. We lived in a whirl of negativity; rarely did we pause to consider such quaint things as feelings. It took an outsider (namely, my husband) to point out that our speech had eroded us. The ugly way we spoke had become so ingrained (we ceased to hear ourselves!) that not only had it affected family dynamics but also the way we related to neighbors. Thanks to him, I've begun to rein in the f-bombs, so I don't always sound like a page from Mansbach's children's book, but I still need reminders if I am going to break the cycle and not pass this charming habit on to my kids. 

Sure, everyone can be fresh. My children are no exception. Margot is a pro at dishing her 3-year-old sass. But it's amazing how widespread the attitude is. I've experienced play date after play date where the dictating demons not only boss around their buddies but also demand their parents bring them Veggie Booty NOW! and the parents hop to it without flinching or expecting common decencies like please and thank you. Which makes me wonder (silently, right; to voice this would be lashon hara!) how the parents treat one another, how they do--or don't--cultivate a home rooted in love and respect.

I need to be more aware of my speech. As parents we can all stand to fair better. When siblings get into a scuffle, does it matter who did what first? Rather than encourage them to rat each other out and lay blame, we can encourage our children to grant each other the benefit of the doubt, to at least try to work together to move past disagreements. As easy as it is to criticize others, we would all be better served by turning that critical eye inward, to spend a bit more time evaluating ourselves.

Keep it Real

Which isn't to say we need to fake the nicey nice. Jewish law endorses the expression of negative thoughts for a constructive, positive outcome. What I should have done that day instead of thoughtlessly ranting to my sister is attempted to have a calm productive conversation with this other mother. Maybe she was unaware of her behavior, maybe I was unaware of mine, maybe we misunderstood each other; maybe through direct communication we could have improved upon and strengthened a budding friendship. 

And in those instances when you simply need to vent, lashon hara be damned, that's what doors are for. Shutting. After the bunnies are asleep. At night.

If your kids need some more help in the politeness arena, check out these guides to good manners, welcoming guests, and respecting parents and grandparents

Sara Lippmann

Sara Lippmann has written for American Baby, GQ, Details and other magazines. Her fiction has been published in Jewish Fiction, Slice Magazine, Our Stories, and elsewhere. Her column, "Read it Loud: Notes from Storytime," appears regularly at Used Furniture Review. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a monthly NYC reading series, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.