Middle School

6 min Read

Bullying is bad. Teasing? Maybe not.

No one wants their kids’ feelings to get hurt, but teasing is one of the ways kids communicate social cues.

I got a phone call from a mom who was really upset about her child being bullied at school. Her son is in Grade 5 in a nice suburban neighbourhood. I was disturbed to hear this and asked what happened.

“Well,” she said, “Donny was with some of his soccer buddies at lunch, and one of the boys – he thinks he’s a real comedian – told Donny that he looked weird because he had spilled some of his milk on his shirt!”

“Weird?” I asked.

“Yes, he said the mess on his shirt looked like a ‘weird’… male genitalia! Is that any way for a student in Grade 5 to talk? Donny usually lets everything roll off his back, but I could see he wouldn’t forget this one. This bullying stuff is running rampant.”

Whoa. Slow down. Bullying is bad. Period. But what mom was describing didn’t sound like bullying to me.

By definition, the intent of bullying is to create a social web of control and intimidation. Fortunately some schools are starting to get hip to this fact and are taking measures to slow it down or even stop it.

But my fear is that people are losing sight of the difference between bullying and teasing. The fact is that they are very different. Teasing – in the right set of circumstances – is an important part of how children relate to one another.

The key difference between productive teasing and bullying is if it’s friendly or mean-spirited. Someone who is trying to get a laugh at another’s expense, to assert power over them or to hurt their feelings, is crossing a line into bullying. However, if the person making a joke is trying to inform the “target” of some form of social information, they are appropriately using teasing to relate to the other person in a positive way.

Kids teasing kids is a vital part of how our children grow up learning to recognize social cues and the meanings of life “between the words.”

This goes back to the kindergarten kids on the playground, where the boy runs up to the girl and pronounces, “I hate you!” Then he laughingly runs off, while the focus of his “hatred” runs after him trying to tackle the perpetrator of the tease.

Call it early childhood flirting. “I hate you” in this situation actually means, “I like you,” “I want attention from you,” “I want to play with you,” and a variety of other meanings. But, most kids are not going to walk up to another child and state, “I have a crush on you.” It would be too shocking on their young cardiovascular systems. Shyness still prevails.

In fact, most adults can’t do it either. We all communicate in our relationships with fun little innuendos. It’s a form of play that we use at every age.

I know Donny, the Grade 5 student. I work with him because he does indeed struggle with making and keeping friends. He misses a lot of social cues that other kids ordinarily pick up on. He’s often unkempt with signs of what he ate for lunch on his shirt. And, frankly it’s a turn-off to the girls in whom he is becoming interested.

But kids like him. He not only has a sweet disposition, but he’s also a heck of a good soccer goalie, which buys him points with his peers. He’s just a bit awkward socially. So sometimes, other kids tease him about some of the stuff he says or does.

Getting teased about the gunk on his shirt? This is not bullying. It’s instruction from the social hierarchy of his peers. If his parents or teachers explicitly tell Donny to be more careful when he eats so that he doesn’t make a mess on his shirt, the information goes in one ear and out the other. But, when one of his buddies says it, he hears it.

A child might also say, “Hey Donny, do you have a drinking problem?” The message Donny hears is “Did you see that you spilled something on your shirt at lunch and do you know that you should be careful not to do that?” This type of teasing has been the stock in trade of how children give each other feedback since the beginning of time.

The subtle nuance in what is said versus what is meant – called “social pragmatics” in the psychology jargon – is the language of how kids learn progressively greater levels of self-awareness and how to see themselves in the social fabric with those around them.

That is what kids are in the process of learning as they grow up. These are the lessons of how to say something to someone that is honest, or helpful, or important for them to know without making him or her feel too bad about it. OK, sometimes there may be some sting when hearing others’ points of view. Which is why children are also discovering how to say to these things in a gentler way.

Don’t you want to know if your blouse is unbuttoned, you’re flying low, or a potential object of your affection is interested in you? Teasing is the way we connect in conversation to convey these messages, while keeping it light and friendly.

Donny’s mom spelled it out. “I guess he handled it. He wasn’t really upset about it, but the fact that he talked about it when he came home was quite a statement. He usually pays no attention to me when I bug him about how he looks. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard him say anything about what someone else has said.” I chimed in, “which is a good thing.”

I couldn’t resist a little chiding. “So we agree a little teasing is OK?” I said. “Do you still want to do as much laundry on Donny’s shirts as you did at the beginning of the year?” She laughed, “No, no, I’m tired of all the shirt stains!”

Compared to what he was like when we first met at the beginning of the school year, Donny is a most improved young man in his appearance, self-awareness and confidence.

Of course many factors have contributed to this. But, some of the thanks are due to his friends and their edgy sense of humour.

Michael J. Weiss, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in helping families and schools manage developmental differences in children.

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