These boys are not gathered in my office today for group therapy--at least not in the traditional sense. None has been diagnosed with a particular emotional problem. They are not especially "bad" boys, poor students, or troublemakers. They make good-enough grades. In fact, there is nothing unusual about any of them. And that's why they're here. They represent a cross section of their class, and they have been picked by their principal to talk with me about the cruel teasing that has become so commonplace at their school as to seem unremarkable.
They all take part in the drama. Jack most often plays the role of the attacker. If he can find a flaw in someone, real or imagined, he'll point it out, turn it into a nickname, hammer it home at every opportunity, and enlist others to join in the fun. Mario is often at his side, the combination of his imposing size and Jack's sharp wit making them an almost irresistible force. Most boys in their class find themselves in the uneasy middle. Sometimes they are targets; sometimes they are the attacker. It is the way of the jungle. Only the strong survive. Robbie finds himself among a handful of boys who have been the frequent targets of teasing. The other day he broke down crying and ran out of the room when he was teased by some boys in his math class for failing a pop quiz.
I am trying to engage them in a discussion about how teasing can hurt. My initial questions are directed to James and Ernesto, who are friends.
"Is it ever all right to tease someone?"
James: "Sure. I tease Ernesto all the time, and he teases me back. But we're still friends."
"What do you tease each other about?"
James: "I don't know. I'll tease him about his shoes." (Everyone looks at Ernesto's old, very plain square-toed shoes and laughs. Clearly they are familiar with the topic. Buoyed by their laughter, James's explanation gains vigor.) "You know how, like, they're so old. His shoes are homemade, you know. His dad made them for him. His whole family has homemade shoes, even his sister."
"Does it bother you, Ernesto, when James teases you like this?"
Ernesto: "My shoes aren't homemade. I like my shoes."
James: "Yeah, right! They're like made of wood or something."
Ernesto: "Dr. Kindlon, you know how James's mom packs him a cheese sandwich every day? That's because she has all this welfare cheese at home, and that's all she'll give him for lunch. His sister gets, like, McDonald's every day, but she saves the welfare cheese for him."
"Okay, what does everybody else think about this? Is it okay to tease like this between friends?"
Jack: "Yeah, it's funny. Nobody minds."
"When isn't it okay? How do you know when you've hurt someone's feelings? When you've gone too far?"
There is silence and long vacant stares. Although I should know better by now, I am surprised by the boys' lack of understanding of how their words and actions affect one another.
"Does teasing ever hurt?"
Several boys admit that it does.
"Then how can you tell whether you've hurt someone? How about with Robbie? You were all in class with him the other day. What about that?"
More silence. They don't have a clue. They're not faking it to look cool or tough. They don't know how to read Robbie and don't even sense that they should. Another boy from the uneasy middle, Randy, offers a response, finally, that singles him out as the deepest emotional thinker in the group, yet none too confident in this intuitive realm. His answer is a question: "You know you've gone too far when somebody starts to cry?"
"Sure, that's right. But wouldn't it be better if we knew how to stop teasing before we made somebody cry? Does someone have to cry before you suspect that what you're saying might be hurting him? How else might you know that a person's upset?"
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