I’m a tease.
I come from a family of teasers, and I belong to a group of friends who are jokers, pranksters, verbal jousters and who love to participate in a dinner party full of lively, social banter. Teasing, self-deprication and congenial insults are at the heart of every get together and the laughter that makes you start to pee your pants just a little bit is standard. I like my humor dry and sarcastic and I enjoy a good satire that pokes fun at all the social hot buttons of the moment, like the Colbert Report, The Daily Show or Parker and Stone’s The Book of Mormon, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently. When I spend time with kids, I let some off color humor fly and I bust a few chops. They figure out pretty quickly that I have a funny way of doing the serious work of whatever we are doing and jump right in. It wins trust. It engenders collaboration. It motivates them to do stuff. To learn stuff. To share stuff. It works for me. But, I know, it’s not for everyone. Lots of people in the world are way more serious than I am… I get it.
But, this year, for the first time, I was asked by a school if I had an anti-bullying presentation. I was completely taken off guard with this question, if not just for the fact that most of my repertoire is pretty well understood to be about making funky art, writing silly rhymes and talking about my two dumb dogs. (And, yes, I said the D word, which is not allowed, I know, but what would you call a creature who eats its own poop? I mean, seriously?) So, no, I do not have an anti-bullying presentation, nor will I ever have one because, truthfully, I’m a little confused about the direction this whole movement has taken.
From what I understand, the newest version of school anti-bullying rulings requires classroom teachers to report any instances they witness. Reporting includes forms and paperwork. In some cases, this teacher monitoring responsibility even extends beyond the walls of the classroom into student participation in social media. Failure to report could result in the loss of his/her job. Training for what bullying is has begun with the new school year, as well as training to recognize feigned victimization for the expected new crop of tattlers–no kidding, folks, I was just told yesterday by two teachers that part of the training is learning how to determine if the “victim” and/or the “witness” is on the level. I am beginning to think we’ve gone too far.
There have been well documented cases, awful cases, involving true hate crimes that have ruined lives and caused life-altering emotions and worse in the victims and, in many ways, these terrible events are the precursors to these more strict guidelines with student social behavior. But, right now, I am less interested in focusing on the tragic cases of bullying in this country that have led to suicides than I am in thinking about what these new sanctions could mean for certain populations of kids: the jokey kids, the funny kids, the class clowns, the less socially developed, the sarcastic, the silly kids, and the teasers.
I worry about these kids because, while their hearts are often in the right place, and while much of this kind of stuff is all “normal” in the scope of early childhood development, if this kind of behavior is exhibited in front of a teacher who is now required to report what he/she deems “bullying,” I believe we are on the proverbial slippery slope. Forget for a moment that teachers have more than their share of reports to make and forms to fill out, but it seems to me like there are all kinds of teachers who feel all different ways about what is and isn’t funny, what is and isn’t normal childhood development and what is and isn’t bullying. Like teasing… is that bullying? My friends and I don’t think so.
Teasing gets a bad rap these days and I am probably setting myself up for tons of dissent on this one– make sure you haven’t bantered with me at a school, a show or a conference before you tell me how wrong I am–but I’ve been holding onto a 2008 column by one of my favorite social commentators, Dacher Keltner, author of Born To Be Good. In it, he describes the kind of teasing and chop-busting that serves, not to alienate people, in this case children, from each other, but instead to create stronger social bonds. He goes through the historical context of teasing, from the days of Shakespeare and court jesters to fraternity nicknames and marital gibes. Animals are cited for their observable hierarchies of teasing behavior and Keltner makes parallels to the world of humans, delivering the data as to why these exchanges are so important to what it means to be fully alive. His article, In Defense of Teasing, is well worth reading but his closing summary is one that truly mirrors my own frustration over where we have come with the so-called zero tolerance movement:
In seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange. In teasing, we learn to use our voices, bodies and faces, and to read those of others — the raw materials of emotional intelligence and the moral imagination. We learn the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously. We learn boundaries between danger and safety, right and wrong, friend and foe, male and female, what is serious and what is not. We transform the many conflicts of social living into entertaining dramas. No kidding.
It must be confusing to be a child these days. They are monitored so closely, every minute of every day, and social behavior, at the school level, appears, to me, to be very scripted. Playgrounds are no longer places where children can even create their own games, rules or communities and, in sports, everyone is a winner and both teams get to take home a trophy. But, we also live in a world where standing presidents make public jokes about weapons of mass destruction, where political candidates make statements that produce a crowd’s cheers of “let him die,” and a prime time lineup of entertainment glorifies public confessions, humiliation and the out and out degradation of fellow human beings. I have to sometimes really wonder who are the adults in the room?
It is not popular to criticize programs which ostensibly aim to make children nicer. In a 2009 interview with Professor Helene Guldberg, Izzy Kalman (author/creator of Bullies2Buddies.com) discusses the loads of criticism Guldberg received for an article that questioned the direction this anti-bullying movement has gone in. In writing this blog post I reached out to over 700 people on my Facebook, including several authors who would be classified as humorists. The response to the photo of my new fall boots was more lively than the virtual sound of crickets I heard after asking these folks if they thought we’d gone too far. The few who responded did so in the publicly appropriate, boiler plate fashion, citing examples of why stronger restrictions are necessary. But, I wonder if we haven’t created the very problem we are trying to correct now and therein lies the problem.
TRY THIS WEEK: Playfully tease someone you really like. See what happens.