“Oh, honey, you know I’m just teasing you,” I said, smiling as I ruffled my then 6-year-old’s hair. He was miffed that I was gently ribbing him about the Dennis the Menace cowlick in the back of head and how we needed to go and get him a haircut.
“Teasing isn’t allowed at school. It’s bullying,” my son responded.
This stopped me in my tracks. Is playful teasing really the same as bullying? I’d mostly thought of teasing as a form of affection especially within the family and with close friends. I’d grown up in a family that teased each other. My husband and I lovingly tease each other and as our kids have begun to understand humor, we’ve begun teasing them too.
Sure, teasing can be mildly irritating, but among family and friends it comes from a place of love and knowing the other person well enough to see his or her idiosyncrasies.
When it comes to understanding the nuances of teasing, context and the nature of the relationship is key. Several years ago, communication researchers Carol Bishop Mills and Amy Carwile, at the University of Alabama examined the difference between teasing and bullying. The media and schools often link the behaviors as part-and-parcel in response to episodes of school bullying.
The researchers found that the lighter side of teasing actually benefits our social life by building and strengthening relationships and helping us navigate conflict. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to light-hearted teasing is a valuable skill for any competent communicator.
Teasing is positive when:
- Both parties are laughing, smiling and joking with each other.
- Both individuals sense that the teasing is playful and not meant to be hurtful.
- The person being teased responds in a playful way, which increases his or her like-ability in the group.
- There’s a balance of power in the relationship. For example, two friends who often rib each other.
Teasing should stop immediately when:
- Facial expressions convey that the other person is feeling hurt by the comments.
- Taunting or cruel name-calling is used (epithets related to race, weight, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and disability are unacceptable).
- Comments are derogatory in nature, insulting and mean-spirited.
- The teaser shows disdain and dislike for the other person.
- There’s a power difference between the individuals. For example, one is the “popular” kid and the other is struggling in the social setting.
In many social situations, the teaser’s intent isn’t always clear. As parents we can coach our kids to “tease” out the difference between mean-spirited teasing that’s associated with bullying and affectionate teasing. For example, teach them to recognize playful social cues like tilting of the head, smiling, warm eye contact, nodding and tone of voice. They can then learn to respond in kind.