Guest post: Methods for dealing with “teasing”

Guest post by Kevin Kirkpatrick, originally a comment on Hiss point hiss hiss.

When I read Emily D’s defense of Shermer’s “NAUGHTY-NAUGHTY” comment, I see a direct parallel in how parents might choose to deal with sibling in-fighting, teasing, and bullying.  I have direct experience with three methodologies: that which my mother applied to my siblings and me; that which my father applied, and that which my wife and I apply for our own children.

My mother’s approach to dealing with teasing was “rule based”.  She simply had a set of rules which determined what behavior was teasing and what behavior was not.  Rules included but weren’t limited to: no unwanted touching, no name-calling, no finger-pointing, no ‘copying’, and so on.  And the result?  The older siblings were savvy enough to identify behaviors which sidestepped these rules and allowed them to torment and bully the younger siblings “at will”.  Acronyms were invented to give normal words derogatory meanings;  a younger sibling might  be called a “G.I.R.L.” after having been told what that “really” meant.  Pointing/staring at something near the younger sibling was very popular. Almost but not quite touching (“I’m not touching her!”).  And so on.  The rule-based approach required my mom to interview both sides and figure out who broke a rule.  And boy, did the elder siblings get good at “gaslighting” (amazing to find such a perfect term for something 30 years after the fact): “We didn’t call her a name, we just called her a girl, she’s crazy and just trying to get us in trouble.”

My father’s approach was authoritative and emphasized peace and quiet: punish/scold whoever is disrupting the peace so the peace is not disturbed.  This was a gold mine of opportunity for the older siblings: tease quietly/surreptitiously, and when the younger siblings loudly retaliated or complained, there’d be the added delight of seeing that sibling both get upset and reprimanded.

As a middle child growing up in the above household, I walked away with a pretty good feel of how ineffectual those strategies were.  Frankly, up until adulthood (at which our own maturity allowed us to work through and mend things), we children basically resented one another.  We rarely got along, never sought opportunities to do things together, and ultimately lived completely independent lives through to college age.

And as a parent, I resolved to handle things differently with our children.  Our approach to teasing is 100% empathy based and victim-supporting.  If one of our kids is upset based on what the other is doing, that behavior is directed to STOP immediately (with direct consequences if merited).  The “worst” backlash the victim can expect is, if the behavior is innocuous enough and/or plausibly non-malicious, we ensure that the victim first directly asked the transgressor to stop the behavior.   If the teasing continues (in any capacity), the “teasor” is removed from the social situation completely; timed out until they’re ready to behave kindly and respectfully.  Much emphasis is put on empathy training: the consequence is usually some form of the teasor working out and explaining to us how the teasing makes the other sibling feel, and understanding how they wouldn’t like to feel that way themselves.

Suffice it to say, the different approach to teasing has yielded astonishingly different results.  Our kids, now 7 and 5, are and have always been best buds.  As I write this, they’ve literally been at imaginative play for going on 3 hours (and that’s the norm).  Sibling fighting still occurs from time to time (mostly when the kids are over-tired/hungry/etc.), but it simply does not exist in any significant way in our household.

Emily D’s defense of Shermer 100% rings of the rule-based approach my mother used, and I’m mostly stunned that my 7 and 5 year old children seem to have already developed a better grasp of how to respectfully engage others than she seems to advocate.  The CFI culture seems more in line with my father’s authoritative attitude: punish and shame the noise-maker, with the end-goal of “peace and quiet” being the measure of success.



  1. says

    Thank you. This is a good point. When you are put in charge of people, it’s very easy to be lazy and create a system that doesn’t inconvenience you, rather than create a system that’s best for those under you, which is sort of the point of being in charge. The less ability your charges have to leave, the lazier you can be. Skeptical leadership is starting to wake up to the fact that their charges have other options and are aware of them, but seem to want to keep taking the easy solutions.

  2. ischemgeek says

    Shadows of how my parents parented, only instead of punishing the loud child, they punished me for everything because as the eldest, I “should” be responsible enough to “defuse” the situation. And, yeah, it had about the same results. My siblings and I are all in our 20s now, and we’re only just starting to forge something resembling working relationships. All rules-based systems do is enable abusers to find loopholes to exploit.

  3. kevinkirkpatrick says

    Thanks for the props and repost! No, I hadn’t seen the tweet you mentioned, but nice to see I’m not the only one to note the resemblance in attitudes toward childhood teasing and adult harassment. It’s interesting that the aggressors in both front always perceive things according to the “rules” mentality… ala “So, what, we’re not supposed flirt at the buffet, talk to women in elevators, or invite women for a cup of coffee?” No douchebag – the point is to not make those around you feel uncomfortable.

  4. says

    Yes exactly. I just (well, an hour or two ago) saw a tweet of Dawkins’s that does the same thing.

    Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive. Other examples where facts should be hidden because offensive?

    Oh come on, Richard – you can’t really be that dense. Of course a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive.

    That’s just sheer “I’m not touching you!!”

  5. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive.

    Well, what appears to be the fact that Michael Shermer is an abuser of women seems to have offended a great number of Skeptics™…

  6. leftwingfox says

    Absolutely agree with this. I recognize both the authoritarian and rule-driven systems in the ineffective methods used by authorities back when I was being bullied and physically assaulted in Jr. High.

  7. jmb says

    Lao Tsu noted that rules-based systems just get you people who are better and better at working the system to come up with loopholes, instead of workarounds, and that was what, 2500 years ago? The more things change…

    Oh, and Jim Hines has returned to the fray with a very appropriate Stick Figure Commentary, on Con Harassment, this time:

  8. jmb says

    Argh, that should say “loopholes/workarounds, instead of ethics” — and I see that others at FTP read Jim Hines, too. Time to call it a night.

  9. Bjarte Foshaug says

    I also think there is a something like a “childhood teasing” analogy to the whole false equivalence phenomenon. I have definitely had my share of experience with the ability of older children to terrorize their younger siblings in such a way that the victim ends up getting all the blame. But even when that didn’t work and the bullying was obvious, our parent’s refusal to take sides often resulted in the victim getting half the blame: “Cut it out! Both of you!”, “Will you two stop your fighting!” etc. Karen Stollznow describes something similar:

    Alternatively, both the accused and accuser are blamed for the situation. Those who didn’t know the extent of the harassment reacted as though we simply don’t play well together in the sandbox. “Why don’t you two just get over it and move on!”

    Another common feature of sexual harassment and childhood teasing is the popularity of telling the victim to “just ignore it” (“Don’t feed the trolls”, “don’t give them any attention”, “rise above it” etc.). I would be surprised if any harassed woman or bullied child had ever failed to extract the true meaning of such a statement, which is “I prefer to just ignore it”

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