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Just Teasing

Gentle teasing has social benefits for kids.

By Samantha Cleaver | null , null
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Carol Bishop Mills remembers when her son, Jonah, came home from second grade upset because the other kids were calling him “Fiona.”

“They think I’m a girl,” Jonah told his mother.

“No,” said Mills. “They’re just calling you that because Fiona rhymes with Jonah. They think it’s funny.” But Jonah still didn’t see the humor. “When they say that, tell them, ‘I’m not Fiona. I’m Shrek,’” Mills advised her son.

“Oh,” said Jonah, smiling, finally understanding the joke.

Kids poke fun at one another. It’s just what they do. Our instinct as parents may be to immediately stop the behavior and try to protect our kids from it, but, in fact, some teasing is critical to our children’s social development.

When kids make fun of their friends without aggression or any intention of hurting their feelings, it’s called positive or productive teasing. This kind of behavior, says Mills, a communications professor at the University of Alabama, helps kids build relationships and use humor to address taboo topics or handle sticky situations. According to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, 60 to 70 percent of the teasing young kids do is positive. If we don’t let kids tease at all, says Keltner, we stop the majority of teasing that helps kids form bonds and navigate social situations. “Teasing is a way to handle the conflicts of our social lives in less aggressive ways.”

Kids of all ages use positive teasing to forge friendships and gain understanding. A toddler hides a toy in hopes of getting a friend’s attention. First graders chant “Bobby and Sarah sitting in a tree . . . ” as they begin to explore boy-girl dynamics. And when Keltner’s 11-year-old daughter makes fun of the music her dad likes, she’s distancing herself from her parents’ tastes so that she can discover her own.

Teasing vs. Bullying
Teasing is misunderstood because it is often confused with bullying, which has a strictly negative impact. The way to distinguish between the two is by the intent. The goal of teasing is to create closer relationships and make connections. The goal of bullying is to harm. Teasing turns into bullying when kids use it to gain greater social status. David Nelson, associate professor of human development at Brigham Young University, has found that even 4- and 5-year-olds will bully to increase their social power.

Of course, even the most positive teasing turns sour if it goes too far. To determine whether the teasing is positive or not, it’s essential to look at context. For example, if kids joke about a child’s shoes, that’s different from focusing on something much harder to control, such as being overweight. Also, says Keltner, “Teasing a kid behind a gym out of sight is dangerous, whereas teasing in front of a group of friends is less threatening.”

The line between teasing and bullying blurs again when the child being teased doesn’t know how to respond. “Everyone has a different set of personal boundaries,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, “and that’s confusing for kids.” But, she says, if a child overreacts or withdraws in response to teasing, she may lose out on important social experiences.

Helping Kids Manage
To help your child understand teasing and even benefit from it:

Teach teasing: Keltner recommends teaching context clues that surround playful teasing (i.e., body language, laughter, or sarcasm) so he can see the difference between serious and joking conversation and use those tools to joke back.

Define the terms: Mills uses a teeter-totter analogy: When both people are equal in size, intelligence, and age and are having fun, it’s teasing. But when the two aren’t equal—one’s more popular, bigger, or powerful—and the exchange is out of balance, it’s bullying. 

Listen without disagreement: If your child tells you her classmates called her ugly, don’t just jump in to reassure her that she’s beautiful, says Mills. “As soon as you do that, you’ve let her be victimized.” Instead, listen to what she says, and then help her come up with a plan to address it the next time it happens.

Do some investigating: If you want more information, don’t ask your child directly if he’s being teased. Instead ask a question that can be answered in the second or third person. How do kids joke around these days? Or, what is teasing like for kids today?

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