Is it normal for kids to be mean?

On re-reading Australian test cricketer Usman Khawaja’s article about the racism he encountered in Australia as a young boy of Pakistani descent that I wrote about recently, I noticed that he tossed out a statement almost in passing, that “Kids can be mean and that is normal.”

The statement is a little ambiguous in its meaning. He says that kids can be mean, which can be taken to mean that only some choose to be mean for some of the time. That is unexceptional. But then he adds that it is ‘normal’, which suggests that he thinks pretty much every child tends to do it. It is the latter interpretation that I have some issues with and served as the spur for this post.

Is it really normal for kids to be mean? By normal, I mean that it is some kind of development stage that all children pass through. I find that hard to believe because I see no reason as to why it should be so. Why would our developmental stages require a period of meanness? What purpose would it serve? Speaking purely on the basis of personal experience, I lived as a child in England and Sri Lanka and went to school in both places. I had had polio as a child and thus was physically very different from others, the usual reason for being targeted by mean kids. But it was only in England that I encountered a few kids who were gratuitously mean. And they were mean to others too, not just me, so their behavior wasn’t necessarily driven by skin color but more by a bullying culture that permitted the existence of a hierarchy with the bullies being allowed to dominate whoever did not toady to them and was weaker. I don’t recall ever experiencing that kind of meanness and bullying in Sri Lanka.

Khawaja wrote about the racist slurs that he and other players of color experienced as part of this meanness. I think the problem is deeper that racism and lies in a culture that accepts bullying as normal. Bullies will use any weapon at their disposal to emphasize their dominance and race is as good a weapon as any. For example, racism is pervasive and deeply embedded in Sri Lanka, going back a very long time, leading to vicious and bloody civil wars periodically erupting but as a schoolboy, I do not recall overtly racist taunts being used because the bullying culture that would make them ‘normal’ was not there. Individual children might well have harbored racist views but using them as a taunt would have been highly unusual.

So I don’t accept that meanness is ‘normal’, in the sense of something that all children go through, all over the world. I think it is cultural, something that is inculcated in some children by their families and the immediate environment they encounter as part of a culture that accepts bullying. According to Khawaja, it seems exist in Australia, and in my experience it also existed in the UK. In the US, the existence of a bullying culture in schools seems to be taken for granted, as the ubiquity of the ‘mean kids’ phenomenon suggests. But even in those countries, it likely does not exist everywhere but depends on local factors as well.

It would be interesting to hear from those in other countries whether it is ‘normal’ there.


  1. says

    I think it’s “normal” for kids to be a bit thoughtless and selfish, which can lead them to act mean. This is probably because they don’t have a fully developed theory of mind yet. However, in my limited experience, by the time kids reach school age, they are perfectly capable of understanding that their actions affect others and to check themselves from the worst excesses. After that point, I wouldn’t expect to see more than sporadic outbursts, e.g. when they feel strong emotions that they haven’t yet learned how to handle.

  2. says

    “Meanness” to me seemed to be a manifestation of in-group/out-group behaviour, i.e. you were mean to people who you saw as different to your chosen norm. I was definitely the awkward immigrant kid on the edge, not interested in sport (gasp!), always reading etc and was taunted at every opportunity. That’s in Australia in the 60’s/70’s. Boy was I glad to escape to University and later to almost lifelong self employment.

  3. Heidi Nemeth says

    Yes, I think meanness -- or something that is more encompassing than meanness -- is part of a child’s development. Around the age of 10 children learn to fight. Not physically, but socially. In order to master fighting, children must fight. This necessitates children starting fights, unduly prolonging fights, botching fights, gloriously winning fair and (more likely) unfair fights, and ending fights and trying out many strategies. Children who do not master such skills as children are at a disadvantage as adults. (At 13, children are experienced enough to take on their parents.)
    I made up this theory after studying Piaget and watching young animals at the zoo with my children. All the young animals were fighting with siblings -- or with their mother. And my children were near the age of 10 and driving me to distraction with their bickering and fighting.
    After that visit to the zoo, I relaxed about their fighting.
    Perhaps, Mano, you left Sri Lanka before the age when you and your peers were learning to fight.
    I can’t imagine a society where adults wouldn’t need to know how to stick up for themselves. And I would hate to be an adult whose first encounter with meanness was as an adult.

  4. Brian English says

    Kids are certainly capable of being mean. And I think so are our closest relatives (chimpanzees). I think it’s not anormal. But I don’t conclude it’s necessary.
    There’s certainly meanness and racism in Australia. I was bullied a bit as a kid at school, being somewhat introverted, into learning and craptastic at sports. But I did a bit of bullying (not much) as I am a wimp and didn’t like how it felt, but sometimes it was bully or be bullied. I guess there’s a hierarchy in it or something or it’s like gangs forcing members to commit crimes so everybody is guilty?
    I used to throw around racist epithets when I was kid. It just seemed normal to use the word ‘abo’. Everybody was listening to ‘comedians’ like Kevin Bloody Wilson, whose comedy was racist and sexist ditties. There wen’t any aboriginals around, so it wasn’t like I was calling aboriginals ‘abo’s just a name to be thrown around like ‘sook’, ‘idiot’, ‘poofter’ etc.
    That was in the early ’80’s and in the bush. I have no idea what kids are like now, but Australian society is much more multi-cultural and I reckon a lot of the backlash against progressive ideas and multiculturalism (One Nation, etc) is a last-dying gasp of those ideas.

  5. Mano Singham says


    If it helps, I attended school in England from the years 7-10. The rest of the time I attended school in Sri Lanka.

  6. anat says

    Heidi, in my experience kids fight socially as early as preschool. Doesn’t mean it is a good idea to let them fight with no limits, they need guidance to learn to solve their differences on their own.

  7. says

    I’ve sometimes wondered whether humans are absolutely horrible, unless raised in the influence of civilization. Rousseau used to hypothesize wildly that mankind’s nature was gentle and wild, until civilization came along and ruined everything. But if I recall correctly, he never raised a child and probably spent a minimum amount of time near one. I’m actually the same way, though -- unlike Rousseau -- I don’t write influential books on child-rearing. But having spent a weekend in the back seat of a VW beetle, with a 3 year old, I am convinced that they are born utterly without civilization and must be carefully raised to be decent human beings.

  8. agender says

    There are 2 different things here:
    The one (and simpler) is peer group fighting in males -- maybe one of the drivers towards ever younger beginnings of puberty. Male-only groups are forming into hierarchies, with the alpha and the betas having highest chance of getting a woman in all societies where there is no fixed patriarchy (please do not require me to repeat all the ethnographic literature of 3 university libraries when i tried to research matriarchies) A.f.a.i.k there is such a fleeting group building with bonobos, too, but it is not lifelong, and probably was not with most human societies.
    Biologically a show-off of young males is necessary to be chosen by a female, but it should not be deadly to the weaker male (I remember Tinbergen on cats -- something like two thirds of the winners in a fight among tomcats were chosen by the female, a third of the loosers got their chance, too) Humans have such things like comment rules, fairness etc. concepts. Male hereditary lines and society depending on that and even land being owned by one male heir made this toxic, destroying female genetic choice. Nice old Darwin wrote about a desideratum, not reality.
    You, Mano, did obviously not experience this phase in GB, it would have been mixed up with the other , and quite unpleasant.
    Because what anat here and Mano´s quotes refer to has no use, it is the equivalent of ratfights when the living area is reduced by a (in-)human researcher -- an overpopulation effect.
    As soon as small children are introduced to scarcity -- be it artificial as religions and capitalism deem “good”, or real poverty -- they cling to life and get addicted to the adrenaline rush of fighting and winning. This distructive behaviour is nor male-only, but more visible in males. European (and I mean Catholic and Puritan/Lutheran) destruct-the neighbor basic imprint was introduced by the witchburnings (torture til she accused other women), and passed on by much-too-many children. Even a mother who survived so many births as US quiverfullers do now could never give each child attention and love, she was overwhelmed, and school classes are constructed to have too many children, too.
    In my generation (the socalled “babyboomers” were 90% born unwanted, “values” were church ones based on the lie that the Vatican had been against Hitler, it enabled him!)) it was me being born out of wedlock, which meant never being defended by a father; the 1970s (beginning knowledge about condoms and the first pills) saw the daughters of a baker, merchant etc. or “new money” against “old money” from kindergarden on and regardless of genderseparation or not; and from mid-1880 on it was racism, ruining the chances of the daughters of migrant workers, mixed up with a harsh propaganda often going into physical violence about the people thrown down into poverty again by costcutting of social state.
    My experience includes 3 nations, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany (costcutting frenzy began in NL), and goes until the end of the women´s movement of the 1990s, that the ingroup-and-outgroup heavy fighting includes the disco- or nightclub scene is something I was told, I do not go into alcohol situations. Racist, sexist, anti-disabled violence was being reported as rising by newspapers until 2000, I cannot guess about numbers in the time of social media.
    And of course I can only suspect that that the aggressivity of a mad dog worldview followed the European church-enforced overpopulation into the colonies (this would explain the clinging to the economic belief in competition as well as the belief that humans act rationally as grown-ups, which is crumbling in the moment. It is an imprint -- neuron shaping at a certain time, and then fixed.)

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