Teasing is mean spirited and destructive — especially for children. Teasing was my family’s MO when I was growing up. In fact, teasing was the “currency” of our family. We teased each other with silly names we made up. My dad’s favorite name for me was “Klutzamia” which loosely translated means “klutzy or clumsy.”
Consequently, even though he taught me every sport I know (ice skating, horse back riding, softball, golf, ping pong, biking), his nickname made me feel uncoordinated when I was growing up. My father used to say he was kidding and that he teased me lovingly — but that’s really an oxymoron. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I felt more athletic and graceful. Once I did, I started to enjoy many different forms of movement, including dance, yoga, running and aerobics.
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, writes about the pursuit of happiness and good habits. One of the habits Rubin wanted to change in herself was to stop being so judgmental. She realized that being judgmental is a big part of teasing and if she stopped teasing, she would stop acting judgmental, whether it’s a judgment about hair style, being vegetarian, or athletic ability, for example.
Several years ago, Rubin wrote a post on teasing and got 125 comments. She has always suspected that teasing is a disguised form of bullying. The person doing the teasing, when called on it, falls back on “I was only teasing, can’t you take it?” Teasing is all too often about dysfunctional pleasure at the expense of the target.
One commenter wrote that “teasing is just a euphemism for criticizing and bullying. It’s a device used to control the teasee, make them feel inferior and bad, and make the teaser feel superior and assert the superior role in the relationship.” Whatever the external justification, teasing does not build self-esteem. On the contrary, it destroys self-esteem.
Saying “just joking,” or “lighten up” or “you need to learn to laugh at yourself” makes the person feel guilty for feeling hurt, and the teaser is denying the real import of their comments. It’s absolutely true that the ability to laugh at yourself is a wonderful thing but it’s much easier to laugh at yourself when you’re bringing up the subject in your own way!
Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy,” recently responded to a reader’s lament about her family and friends relentlessly teasing her 5-year-old daughter. She advised the mom to place her hand on her daughter’s arm and say: “Uncle Buck is teasing you, honey.” If she doesn’t catch the teaser in the act, she should comfort her daughter and then say to the adult: “Please don’t tease her. You are the only person who enjoys it.”
Psychologist Gayle Macklem wrote a paper on bullying and teasing with skills to help children deal with teasing. She explains that it’s important to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses in order to know what strategies will work best. You can do this by observing the child interacting with family and friends. Other factors to consider are temperament and age.
Macklem says the payoffs are significant for your child: safety, self-confidence, resiliency, ability to handle difficult or frightening situations, and the belief your child develops that he or she can master and change challenging situations.
She lists strategies for specific types of children: ranging from emotionally young or disabled children to assertive children who feel more confident confronting another child. Her final strategy should be included in every lesson for all children: Ask for help.
“Tell your child that sometimes you need to find an adult and get help. If the teasing doesn’t stop, is dangerous, the teaser threatens to hurt you, or if the teaser touches you, tell an adult as soon as possible.”
It’s taken a conscious effort to stop my childhood tendencies to tease but it’s no longer my automatic response. I have my daughter to thank for that. I admire her ability to make her house a “tease-free” zone. She made it clear early on that she would not tolerate any teasing in her home — of anyone. She grew up feeling the negative impact of teasing from family and friends and vowed not to subject her daughters to it.
We can all be more conscious of the language we use when talking to children so that we empower their self-esteem and not diminish it.