From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.


In January of 1998, in the middle of his fifth-grade year, Charlie Green known to everyone as “Chip”-moved from one town to another in suburban Boston. His family, including his younger sister, Alice, moved in two installments because his mother and father had been separated for a few years. Both parents agreed to relocate to a more highly regarded public school system.

In his old school, Chip had breezed along at the top of the class. He had a couple of close buddies to whom he was fiercely loyal, which was what he wanted. With his slow-to-warm-up temperament, he would not necessarily find one or two new buddies in six months to replace the ones he cultivated in five years at his old school. In his new school, moreover, Chip found himself in a class where several others were as bright as he. He lost his academic buoyancy at the same time that he was finding himself challenged socially. Though he was in fact doing well academically, he actually was fearful that he might fail and be held back; this tendency to overreact to being suddenly immersed in a larger pool of talent is something one sees in boys all the way from preschool to graduate school-and throughout adult life as well.

Chip’s new teacher, Mrs. Lewis, was absent recovering from surgery the first several weeks of Chip’s experience in his new school, but everything seemed satisfactory so far as his mother, Elaine, could tell, though Chip rarely said anything to her about his classmates. “The great truths with Chip’ ” she says, “are likely to come out when I snuggle with him in that somnolent state as he goes to sleep. I don’t know how I’ll stay close to him when he is too old to want that.”

One bedtime in late January, Chip confessed that “I don’t like my school ” His chin quivered a little as he said it. “The kids don’t like me. They call me names. They push me out.” When Elaine asked him how bothered he was by the situation, Chip said he was okay, and seemed to mean it. “I’m the new kid,” he said, by way of explanation. Another month passed and Mrs. Lewis was back with her class. The night before Chip’s parents were to attend the first parent-teacher conference of the year, Chip made another bedtime confession. “I don’t like the school, Mom. The other kids are mean to me. They don’t like me, and I don’t like them.”

The first thing Mrs. Lewis said to Elaine and Tony Green at the conference was that there had been an incident on the playground the day before. Chip’s new school, unlike his old, employed aides to monitor the playground. The aides reported that two boys in his class were teasing Chip, tripping him as they all played a game they called “Virus,” taunting him as clumsy, and urging other classmates to gang up on Chip to force him out of the game.

The school had a clearly stated ethic of student conduct, so Mrs. Lewis was not addressing a vacuum when, as she reported, she pulled the two teasers aside and dressed them down. She said she had lost a great deal of respect for them. This episode would be dealt with just between the teacher and students, but if there were repetition of the teasing she would immediately call their parents. She told the boys she expected everyone in the class to be an advocate for anyone subjected to teasing at the school. For another several weeks, all seemed to be well. Then, in late April, Chip made another bedtime confession. “The kids will never like me. And I will never like them. This is not the school for me. I can’t take it anymore.” Each of the three times Chip had mentioned this subject, he had said about the same thing, but the message had gotten progressively more urgent. Neither then, nor earlier, would Chip actually describe any teasing episodes to his parents. But Elaine assumed there had been another incident. Mrs. Lewis confirmed it when Elaine dropped by the school a couple of days later. She said that the school counselor had been called in to devise a plan to deal with the situation.

The counselor and teacher mailed a letter to the parents of over a dozen classmates who had led, cooperated with, or gone along with the teasing mostly boys, but a few girls as well:

Dear Parents,

It has come to my attention through my observations and through a parent’s concern for her child that a majority of the students in this room are less than tolerant of one of their classmates. Teasing and excluding a classmate, snickering at responses and making someone feel uncomfortable and unwelcome are behaviors that have caused a great deal of pain. I will not tolerate this from anyone in my class.

I have had private discussions with a few of the children in the past and have said nothing to you because “we had a deal”-their behavior would change and I wouldn’t say anything. But when a parent writes that her child can’t take it anymore, doesn’t want to come to school and doesn’t feel that s/he belongs, it is time that I mention it to all of you.

I had the new counselor in the class today while she and I talked with the boys. Tomorrow, I will talk with the girls, but I need your help. Ostracizing anyone is not acceptable.

Please help your child understand this. Thank you

Then the two women talked with Chip and told him they planned to have a session with the classmates who had been teasing him, first with the boys, and then with the girls. He was invited to attend if he chose, but he elected not to. Choosing a time when many students were in transition from one activity to another, school staff quietly summoned the offending students to the two sessions. Chip’s family knows little of what happened at the sessions except that the school ethic was discussed and students were asked to describe any experiences they might have had of being excluded and teased. This was to reinforce the sympathetic argument: How would you feel if someone did this to you?

The day after the session with the boys, Elaine was driving Chip to an appointment when he said, “You know, Mom, they had a meeting.” “Who?” “Mrs. Lewis and all the boys, ” “Did you go?” “No, I decided not to’ ” “What do you think about it?” “I think , ‘ said Chip, who is nothing if not verbal, “grown-ups can be quite useful. And guess what?” “~at? 1) ((1 have a secret code. If something happens and I say the code word to Mrs. Lewis, I can go right away and see the counselor about it.” “I don’t know whether he will or not-or need to,” Elaine said to me, “but I think it must be a very big comfort to him.”


Pascal Lehman, whom I introduced in the first chapter, remembered a teasing episode when he was seven years old. His father, who participated in this conversation, brought it up: “Who was that young man, I can’t remember his name, oh yes, Joshua, that everyone was teasing in Mrs. Stone’s class. Everyone was hammering him, right? And you told us about it and we said, ‘Look, we don’t want you teasing this boy.’ And you said, ‘My friends are doing it, and if I don’t go along they’re going to give me a hard time.’ And we said, ‘well, then, I guess they’re not your friends if they do that. If you treat that kid with respect and show him some decency, you’ll have a friend for life.’ If his friends didn’t like it, then that was that. He had to do the mature thing, and he did.”

“What was it about this kid that made other kids tease him?” I asked. “Well, he wore pretty much the same clothes every day, and he smelled pretty bad, and he wasn’t making friends, and he stuttered pretty bad. He wasn’t really athletic, and, ah, he was overweight, and he was just picked on because he wanted to make friends, but he wanted to make friends so badly that he’d follow boys around, and they didn’t like that. So they started calling him names and beating him up, but he still followed them.” “Did you feel when you were that age that you didn’t have any choice but to participate?”

“You gotta know the environment,” said Pascal. “If it was in the classroom, I wouldn’t participate in it. If it was outside on the playground, and my friends started calling him names, then I would call him names, too.” “What caused you to mention it to your parents?” I asked.

“I told them because it started getting really bad. They started throwing rocks at him. I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t do it. So I told my mom and dad, and asked what I should do. They told me that I shouldn’t go along with other kids-I should look at what the right thing to do is. And they said that if you go against your friends for the right thing, and they make fun of you, too, then they’re not really your friends. So I went back to school, and kids started calling him names, and I stood up against these kids, and they respected me, so they didn’t push me around. They walked away, and called me ‘Joshua lover’ or something like that. Joshua never really talked to me after that point, but none of the kids made fun of him anymore. I don’t know what happened. I guess he was so shocked that someone stood up for him that he actually found another friend.” Speaking to Pascal’s father, I said, “Was there anything else you did other than talk to Pascal about the situation?”

“No, my feeling was: here’s what we believe. Whether it’s hard or not, it’s the right thing, and you have to do it. This is what we think will be the result, but whether we get the result we want or not, this is the right thing to do. I trusted Pascal a lot. I think that is part of it, too, that we showed him that trust. Of course, he didn’t accept it right away. There was a little bit of ‘But Dad, gee I don’t know, the other guys’ You know, there were a lot of ‘yeah, but’s.”‘

Teasing manifests a lack of respect. Or, to put it a little more forcefully: Teasing is an active display of disrespect. All Pascal did was pull an ostracized boy within his own aura of respect, and Pascal’s reputation was such that if he signaled becoming a protector of the ostracized boy, no other boys were going to challenge him very much. Teasing shows an unwillingness to empathize with whatever it is about a person that subjects him to teasing-in Chip’s case, his newcomer status, and in Pascal’s classmate’s case, the stuttering and obesity and deficient personal hygiene. It’s quite possible that the boy Pascal defended understood what he had and hadn’t received: He had received a classmate’s intervention that won him relief from teasing and taunting, but he hadn’t received the empathic recognition from Pascal that might have become the basis of friendship. On the Web page managed by the department of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital to provide a support network for people with neurological disturbances, I found a mother’s posting:

I have a nine-year-old son who is autistic. He is very high functioning, but still experiences most of the social problems normally associated with autism. He attends a regular fourth grade class in public school with no extra assistance (despite my endless lobbying for teaching assistant support). Children remind me of chickens, seeking out the weak and wounded and pecking them to death. They have discovered that my son is bothered by loud noises, and scream and whistle in his ear until he is crying. I’ve tried discussing this problem with the parents of the children involved, as well as the school principal, but the situation has not improved. My husband’s idea is to teach him to fight, but I believe that violence is not the answer, and our son is a very passive little boy.

Another mother responded to her.

I have a son with high functioning autism. We moved to a new state last school year. I was scared to death for him. I was so fortunate for him to have the teacher that he had. I gave her and his special ed teacher permission to talk to the class on a day he was at a doctor’s appointment. They talked about the different behaviors they would see and hear, how we all are here to help each other. That he also would have wonderful things to add to his class. A lot of his classmates became his advocates. He has gross and fine motor difficulties, and children cheer him on when he has trouble. I find the adults set the pace. Your son needs a mentor like mine had. She made it ‘cool’ for him to be him. The first autistic boy enjoyed neither respect nor empathy from classmates or school personnel, and one’s heart goes out to him and his distressed mother. The second little boy got far more than two teacher-mentors. He entered a situation where adults knew how to evoke empathy from classmates. They explained unusual behavior so it wouldn’t seem threatening. They conveyed how classmates could be of assistance. They turned a profound limitation into something “cool.” We can see a vital lesson in teasing stories, namely, that empathy isn’t just an occasional blessing. It is a universal necessity, and where it is lacking, there is often meanness or worse. The two teachers who explained autism to classmates and evoked empathy did more than Chip Green’s school did; his school taught respect and enforced rules, but that falls short of leading Chip’s classmates to be empathic toward a newcomer. Respect may be difficult to enforce where it is not accompanied by empathy.


Teasing-sometimes mild, sometimes sporadic, sometimes incessant, sometimes unspeakably inhumane-occurs everywhere. At school, teasing is observable in almost every classroom, on every playground, in every school hallway, in every lavatory. Certain attributes are frequently the theme of teasing: physical characteristics such as weight, behavioral characteristics such as stuttering, appearance characteristics such as dress or haircuts, social characteristics such as poverty, and of course the specifics of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identity. Yet to understand teasing one has to see that it doesn’t always represent an automatic, unthinking expression of prejudicial opinion; often it represents human meanness deliberately looking for an available target.

Teasing is also observable in most homes, and on most streets. There is a very good chance that your son has been teased somewhere along the line, and an equally good chance that he has done some teasing. The parent or other caregiver concerned about character formation can’t limit attention to how not to be a victim of teasing, but needs to pay equal attention to teaching boys not to tease others.

Teasing is a major schoolboy issue. Most boys bring to first grade the baggage of having been teased in earlier childhood and having already teased siblings or playmates or strangers. They already know how to tease, and virtually all have been on the receiving end enough to know the sting. But a lack of capacity for empathy keeps them from translating their own experience of being shamed into a determination not to inflict shame on others. Quite the opposite: The effect of the experience on a boy often drives him to take out his resentment on someone else.

The goal of the teaser is to make the teased feel ashamed. Depending on the content of the tease, the teased person may feel unworthy or inadequate or unattractive. If the teaser then drops the tease and reestablishes a positive relationship, the teased person feels great relief, his gratitude perhaps outweighing any resentment for being teased in the first place. But if, as often happens, the teasing is persistent and without restoration of relationships, the teased person remains in a state of shame, feeling rejected, insulted, injured.

Teasing is an extremely prevalent form of shaming. Since there often isn’t any remedy for its accusations-how can I change my skin color or ethnic origin or level of intelligence or height or newcomer status?-the emotion the teased person feels, besides shame, is resentment. Resentment implies anger, but anger frosted with a belief that one has received unfair or unjust treatment. Chip Green shows signs of resentment when he goes from saying, “They don’t like me, and I don’t like them,” to saying, “They’ll never like me, and I’ll never like them.”

Teasing doesn’t have to “work,” of course. The person being teased can sometimes turn the tables, either neutralizing the situation or even turning it to his advantage by refusing to acquiesce into shame. Robert Kayton, a psychologist, has worked on strategies for boys to refute and defuse teasing challenges. When we feel shame, he says, our faces turn red, our head and eyes turn away and are lowered, our bodies droop. One can resist shame in part through physical posture alone. Standing erect, looking upward and forward, tightening biceps and jaws-it is more difficult for a person to feel shame when this posture has been deliberately adopted. Breathing plays a part in the physical response to teasing. While physical tension is a good response to teasing, emotional tension isn’t. If a person feels under attack, breathing gets more rapid. One way to calm emotions is to breathe more deeply and slowly. Once a boy gets his body and breathing under control, he can begin to devise a strategy of countering the tease; lacking emotional self-control, he might act impulsively. With time and patience, teasing can be defused and even turned into friendship. Chip’s younger sister, Alice, went through an extended period of teasing by a boy in her preschool group. Alice was one of the smallest in her group, as was another little boy, Ben. Frequently Alice would come home in tears because of taunting by Ben, who may have enjoyed the expressions of unhappiness he could reliably provoke from her. But time passed, the preschool staff worked patiently on Ben’s behavior, and Alice grew enough that she was bigger than Ben. One day she came home and asked if Ben could come over to play. They had become friends. Much teasing is purely mean-spirited. But some teasing is a roundabout and insecure way of expressing interest and attraction. It features prominently in pre- and early adolescent exchanges between boys and girls. The boys who have previously used teasing of all girls as a way to maintain gender boundaries now use it selectively as a safe way of expressing interest. Not ready to venture direct expressions of interest and risk the humiliation of rebuff, boys will gently tease girls, hoping that the girls will read the tease accurately as a way of making safe contact. And vice versa.

Family Teasing

There’s a lot of teasing in family life, not just between siblings but between parents and children and between children and other relatives-grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts. Why do parents tease their own children? They may consider it a means of being critical while taking the edge off their criticism with humor, forgetting, perhaps, that the humorous aspect of teasing is at the expense of the teased. At other times, they may feel that direct advice and criticism are not being taken seriously by a child, so the parents choose to add the shaming aspect of teasing to their criticism. In still other cases, they are somewhat indirectly venting disappointment that their children aren’t quite what they hoped they would be. The ability to read teasing for what it implies develops very early. In all teasing there is an element of hostility, larger, frequently, than the teaser realizes. Parents use shaming techniques on preschool children far more frequently than they are aware, and often acquiesce when their boys are teased or otherwise shamed by siblings, or other relatives or caregivers. The consequence is that boys learn these techniques and use them with varying degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness the rest of their lives, or until someone teaches them otherwise. One of the most significant contributions a parent can make to the character development of a boy is to refrain from shaming him, and to be his active and public ally when others try to use shaming techniques toward him.

The Outsider

Some authorities say that boys and girls tease differently, boys teasing on themes of strength and weakness, girls on themes of inclusion and exclusion. But this distinction isn’t very useful in the case of Chip Green, who was teased and intimidated physically on the playground and snickered at in the classroom, and correctly interpreted it all as exclusion. Beginning in the third grade, other researchers say, teasing between classmates escalates in meanness, and is sometimes difficult to distinguish from bullying, which I shall discuss later in the chapter.

Dorothea Ross, describing her research in a pediatric hospital, helps to put the pain of teasing in perspective: “In the early 1980s, as part of a major study of childhood pain, we asked children with leukemia what their worst pain experience had been. We expected the answers to be some of the often-excruciating treatment-related pains that these children must endure. To our amazement many children said that their worst pain was to be teased about their appearance (for example, baldness, extreme pallor) when they returned to school.”

I read about a family in the Midwest that fell upon hard times when the father lost his job. To keep their family intact, the parents of Russell and Amanda, both in elementary school, had to move into a homeless shelter. Russell made friends with a boy who lived across the street from the shelter, but when the boy’s other friends asked him why he was playing with someone who was homeless, he broke off the friendship. Russell and his sister were subjected to relentless teasing at school over their homelessness. “The neighbors know this is a shelter for homeless families,” said Russell’s mother. “I guess they don’t want anything to do with people like that. It’s really hard on the kids. They go through enough without being teased. They’re teased because they cannot afford ‘good’ clothes. They’re told that the reason they’re homeless is because their parents are bums.” Alex Gordon is a boy who has experienced being an outsider. He had just turned thirteen when I talked with him and his mother about his boyhood. At Passover he had celebrated his bar mitzvah or coming of age ceremony, one part of which was to read and comment on an assigned passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. The passage from the Torah assigned to Alex for commentary read in English translation: “And the stranger you do not humiliate and do not oppress, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” I read Alex’s commentary, which persuaded me that he was surely mature enough to join the company of men. He said in part:

I believe this law of no i-i-oppression is a very important law for the world to follow, not just the Jewish nation. And I think it might be good law to remind some of Israel’s leaders of… I believe that the verse has a different meaning each time it is used. Its first appearance is in a paragraph that includes similar protection to widows and orphans: “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” These three, the widow, the stranger, and the orphan all had virtually no power in a patriarchal society, so we should be especially careful not to hurt them…. These laws set our standards, they remind us. If we do something unjust or unfair or cruel, our consciences kick us mentally. We feel bad if we commit one of these acts. They set guidelines for life, not just for criminal behavior.

Alex might well have added, if he had delved into the sociology of its time, that ancient Israel had very strong conventions of hospitality. An itinerant stranger was accorded the status of an honored guest; he received the best meals and accommodations the host could offer. In our society, older people remember the hospitable invoking of FHB-family hold back-as family members, including young children, deliberately took sparing portions of a meal until it was certain that guests at the table had eaten their fill.

Boys grow up today with less experience in the practice of hospitality to the stranger. Most of us regard strangers with caution at best, or even habitual suspicion. The newcomer to the class, as Chip Green and every other new kid learns, is dealt with on an ad hoc basis. If he’s big and strong and self-confident, he will ordinarily be accorded insider status quickly. But if he’s vulnerable to teasing for any number of possible reasons and isn’t self-confident enough to assert himself into the insider group, he’ll probably be dealt with as an outsider and forced to work his way in. Alex is the only child of a lesbian mother who was in a committed relationship with her companion before conceiving by artificial insemination; he is an easy target for teasing in conventional settings. Fortunately, Alex attends an alternative public school where atypical lifestyles are as much the norm as the exception. His longer than shoulder length hair and earrings, however, do make him prone to street teasing. Helen Gordon recalled a recent social gathering after which Alex and two other boys he knew wanted to walk home rather than ride with her. “They happened to run into a bunch of local guys. Alex and this other kid have really long hair. Somebody called them faggots, but everyone laughed rather than challenged, and they went away.”

Despite his insight and confidence, Alex, when I talked with him by himself, was completely fatalistic about teasing. Yes, he got teased a lot more in public than at school. Yes, he sometimes joined in teasing others at school, or at least went along with it. When I asked him if he didn’t think there was some remedy for teasing, he said simply that one would have to start educating kids a lot younger than he was if one wished to make a difference. He did not expect adults to be able to intervene effectively in the culture of teasing.


In Chapter 6, 1 described a mother’s attempts to avoid gender stereotyping in the toys and play of her twin three-year-olds, Joshua and Jeremiah. In later stages of childhood and adolescence, it gets harder and harder to find examples of boys who avoid such stereotypes because they are teased so relentlessly if they do not abide by the stereotypes. In Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, Barrie Thorne observed a fourth-grade boy on a school playground who had carved just such a path for himself. Thorne watched Brian, wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and T-shirt, join a game of jump rope played by bigger girls. (She wrote in her notebook: “I almost gasped when I saw Brian join the row of girls; I’ve never seen a boy do that.”) Brian knew the chants and the rules, he was as skillful as the girls, and they let him play.

Another time, after he had been playing kickball with the boys, Brian walked over to the jungle gym and joined a line of girls waiting to do tricks on the uneven parallel bars. He ignored the attempt of one girl to exclude him from the line. When one of the girls lost her momentum while she was swinging, Brian walked over and gently pushed her heel to get her going again. Given his turn, he swung in unison with another girl, doing named maneuvers that require considerable physical skill. He was self-confident enough to call out, “Watch me,” the way the most skilled girls did.

Thorne began to think of Brian as a “Waldo” figure. Where might he turn up next? She once found him pitching in a mixed-gender ball game of older kids, all of whom were larger than he. He was usually able to traverse both gender and age boundaries, but not always. Sometimes the girls would shoo him away. Once Thorne watched a group of boys pick sides for kickball in a procedure laced with teasing, leaving out Brian and three other boys. As Brian walked away in his unfashionable one-piece snowsuit, another boy “yelled at Brian, ‘Why are you wearing that sissy snowsuit?’ Brian angrily exploded, ‘Cause my mom wants me to, I told you a million times.”‘ There doesn’t seem to be any problem of gender identification with Brian. He doesn’t have any doubts or unhappiness about being a boy. He just doesn’t confine his activities to fit gender stereotypes and boundaries. The price of this chosen path is that he has to be something of a loner. He hasn’t settled on trying to bond with one group and its activities. When he crosses the boundary to girls’ activities, he does so with sincere intent, not teasing intent. He isn’t there to disrupt, he’s there to play. His path requires a considerable amount of self-possession for his age, but it is a satisfying path for a boy who has the nerve to follow it.


Students develop codes about when it is cool and when it is not cool (most of the time) to complain to adults about the behavior of other kids. Boys emphasize these codes more than girls do, and boys accept fewer limitations on the imposition of the codes than girls do. Barrie Thorne describes the code that lies at the heart of Alex’s fatalism.

The boys’ code is illustrated by a brewing conflict on the Ashton playground. A third-grade boy wearing a dark-green shirt angrily leaned toward a girl who was holding the arm of a boy in a blue jacket and said,’He hit me in the gut; he’s dead.’ The girl let go of the second boy’s arm and said,’He’s yours.’ The boy in the green shirt continued, ‘I already beat his butt,’ as he and the other boy, both with hostile facial expressions, squared off to fight. As they calmly,’Break it up. ‘The two pushed some more as the tall boy inserted himself between them. The boy in the blue jacket stomped away, calling over his shoulder, ‘I’m tellin’ ‘Only tattletales tell,’ the boy in the green shirt taunted after him. The boy who had threatened to tattle continued to walk off the playing field but didn’t approach an adult.

As Thorne shows, a complaining student can’t automatically count on support from a nearby teacher or playground aide. If one student has provoked another, and has been challenged in a way he can’t handle, the adult present may refuse to intervene on the basis that the complainer has “brought it on himself.” If there is adult intervention, it is apt to be episodic, that is, dealing only with the specific behavior involved rather than making the episode an opportunity for a broader discussion of malicious teasing or fighting by the offender(s). This kind of intervention probably has little carryover effect when the same children are at play and there are no adults present.

The code has its origins in experience dating back to early childhood, when toddlers, either siblings or playmates, say to one another, “I’m gonna tell on you. ” Toddlers begin to learn over time how their appeals for intervention and assistance will be met. When, as is often the case, the adult appealed to has not witnessed the act generating the complaint, and there are no other witnesses, the adult is left with all the problems of a court of law when the case comes down to one person’s word against another’s. Such complaints bother many parents, especially if lodged by boys, because their conception of a “real boy” is of one who can deal with such matters without having to depend on outside assistance. Other parents react immediately and emotionally to all such complaints, assuming their validity, encouraging children to complain when there is no real provocation, when they’re simply annoyed with, but not really threatened or teased by, another child.

Another observation by Barrie Thorne shows how well developed this aspect of behavior is when boys leave home to enter kindergarten: As Mrs. Smith’s kindergarten students entered the culture of schooling, they continually assessed the reach of adult authority, including whether and when to ‘tell’ on one another. Boys and girls peppered their daily talk with threats like ‘gonna tell the teacher tellin’. Mrs. Smith tried to set limits by simply ignoring the requests for intervention and by repeatedly telling the students that she wanted ‘none of that tattling stuff.’ The amount diminished over time, but ‘tattling’ continued even when the teacher refused to intervene.

By the time boys reach the higher elementary grades, the code is often so well entrenched that they are extremely reluctant to offer their parents the opportunity to intervene in school situations. I watched half a dozen sixth-grade boys being interviewed recently on television. They were all articulate and personable. One of them admitted that he had been struck on the shin playing ball in the schoolyard at mid year, and it hurt so much he broke into tears. He said he expected to be teased about crying for the rest of the school year, but he hoped it would be forgotten over the summer break. He and his classmates on the show agreed solemnly that it would be useless, counterproductive even, if his mom or dad tried to intervene at school to put a stop to the teasing.

The code against complaining to a higher authority gives an immense advantage to the strongest, who already have a decisive advantage to begin with. To the extent that it has been maintained by boys themselves, it has been promoted by the strong to heighten their power. To the extent that it has been reinforced by parents or teachers, it has been reinforced to try to motivate all boys to be among the strong. But what recourse do the teased and taunted or physically threatened have when they are beset by the strong, except to appeal for assistance?

If adults are physically assaulted or slandered-garden variety “crimes” on the playground-they have recourse to both criminal and civil remedies at law. But they may not lawfully take matters into their own hands and slander or assault back, except in self-defense in physically threatening situations. Why do we not matter-of-factly provide comparable protection for boys and girls? Because we do not regard them as enjoying full legal standing as persons, children must make do with “the code.”

Dominance Hierarchies

Aggression between members of a group, as I’ve earlier noted, is controlled in many animal species by the establishment of dominance hierarchies. Endless scuffling for privilege and position between group members who really need to cooperate with each other for survival is avoided by a process by which each member finds his rank relative to all the others. Then a slight signal from a member of superior rank to an inferior is enough to get the latter to back off, they don’t have to fight it out every time. Where dominance hierarchies are most firmly established, aggressiveness by the whole group toward a stranger increases.

Human animals share this tendency to form dominance hierarchies. Dominance hierarchies are often discussed in relation to males, perhaps because they are more liable than females to establish and maintain hierarchies by the use or threat of physical force, but females also form these hierarchies. Humans often fail to exercise the same restraint other animals do in their hierarchies; humans often go far beyond mere dominance to severely injure or kill others in their group.

So it is important not to make too simple a jump from the behavior of other animals to the human situation. Human hierarchies often are related to purposes other than survival. And a single human being may be related to a bewildering variety of dominance hierarchies, each with its own dynamics. A schoolboy, for example, might be related to siblings, to nuclear family, to extended family, to neighborhood playmates, to classmates at school, to the school as a whole, to various organized sports teams, to a scouting organization, to a religious youth group; in each of them he has to find and maintain his place, and the degree of competition may cause some variation in his ranking from one group to another. Teasing, as a symbolic and verbal substitute for physical aggression, plays an important role in the dynamics of dominance hierarchies. If a tease will do to put an inferior in his place, why bother to fight? Yet the matter is more complex than that. Verbal skills tied to social skills may enable a boy to dominate another boy of equal or even slightly greater physical strength. And shifting alliances among inferiors made possible by language mean that it is more difficult for humans to establish a dominance hierarchy and have it hold stably for an extended period of time. The novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard recently described a suburban neighborhood group composed of her two younger sons and two brothers of ages comparable to her sons’ who live down the block. The four boys have formed the Dog Club. Each of the four has a dog name. Mad Dog, from down the block, is the president of the club even though Mitchard’s older son is the largest and oldest of the four. Mad has the most friends outside the club, and is athletic and smart. He also knows how to work daily alliances with the others to his advantage. An established hierarchy breaks down into a Dog fight about every other day, she says.

Every day the Dogs have to make up rules for the day. There is so much arguing and threatening that sometimes Mitchard has to lean out the window and yell, “Don’t you guys dare talk to each other that way! Be civil or don’t play!” They don’t actually play games that much because so much time is taken up with making the rules and fighting about them. Mitchard writes:

What’s most peculiar about many children’s games, particularly these social creative types, is how the fun seems to go out of them when there’s no one left to devil. The same thing happens when Watch Dog (an occasional fifth member) comes over. Dangerous to everyone, Watch is capable of forming coalitions with any of the others, and a coalition can mean a mutiny. Also, since Watch lives in another neighborhood, he is, to use the technical term, ‘funner,’ simply by his novelty. After a few minutes, Dog meetings with Watch usually break down into a sort of group consensus to play baseball. Richard Hawley, the headmaster of a private boys’ school in Cleveland, Ohio, and a writer, has described a number of the boys who have gone through his school. One of them, named Colin, was masterful at cruel teasing, but he did it more as a loner than to maintain his place in a tightknit hierarchy. An accomplished athlete, he would furtively insult opponents until they were enraged and lost control, drawing penalties on their teams. His classmates and teammates feared him and felt powerless to control him. Colin was even adept at playing off faculty members against each other with cleverly engineered lies and misquotes.

About once a term, Colin would choose a new boy at school, a boy who for one or another reason was going to have a hard time being popular, and establish a mock friendship. The new boy would have no idea why this blessing had fallen out of the sky upon him, but was too hungry for recognition to ask why he had been favored. If he was shy, Colin would find him dates. If he was not a driver, Colin would give him rides. He took his credulous and fully dependent new cohorts to unchaperoned parties and got them drunk. Seasoned classmates learned to identify quickly what was going on. Some watched it from a distance, but others took the opportunity to collaborate in the game of setting up the new boy for a fall. Eventually, when he tired of the masquerade, Colin would let loose his contempt for the gullible boy, distance himself, spurn the boy entirely.

Hawley referred to Colin as being evil. That is an extreme term to use. If I have a reservation about it, it is because I have frequently seen boys subjected to simplistic classification in the work and proceedings of juvenile courts and departments of social services: “He’s just a bad kid!” “He’s really a good kid despite what he’s done.” These evaluations may be associated with the decision whether and how severely to charge a boy with a criminal offense.

But perhaps the term is not too extreme. We do not hesitate to use it with respect to some adult criminal acts. Yet we brush off juvenile assaults on playgrounds and streets, and petty theft, as though they were failures we have to tolerate while boys grow up. Colin, in an affluent private school, may be perceived by his headmaster as “evil,” but he’s not likely to find himself before a judge unless one of the kids he importunes gets seriously hurt.


Chip Green’s teasing problem in fifth grade took a new turn in sixth grade. The classmate who had led the attempt to marginalize Chip from his classmates tried again a year later. He had only a few allies, but his methods were even more confrontational. He would shove and trip Chip during organized sports with apparent intent to injure him, and he repeatedly challenged Chip to fight, boasting of how badly he would beat him. Chip’s father is accomplished in martial arts, and Chip has had some instruction in them as well, but with the philosophy of avoiding fights whenever possible and being mainly defensive if forced to fight.

By sixth grade, however, Chip had his own friends and allies. They were both boys and girls, they were among the “brains” of the class, and their way of standing up to the attempt to intimidate Chip was verbal. The ringleader soon discovered that verbal taunts were ineffective because Chip and his allies gave back more biting remarks than they got. Chip’s father was reluctant to intervene and was hoping that a little coaching of Chip would enable him to deal with the situation effectively himself. Disappointingly, the school seemed not to have tracked what was an obvious problem from the previous year.

The fifth grader’s attempts to tease and marginalize Chip crossed the border in sixth grade into attempts to bully. The line between harsh or relentless episodes of teasing and episodes of bullying may not be apparent to the casual observer. Both aim to demean the victim, but the two activities are also different in one fundamental respect: Teasing is done to provoke shame, to make the victim feel bad and, if anything, go away or stay away. Bullying is done to inspire fear, to intimidate the victim; it is an act of terrorism. A bully usually wishes the opposite of driving the victim away; he often wishes the victim to be available within his domain of influence to reinforce the bully’s sense of power.

When a boy is an excessive teaser or a bully, it is usually a symptom of something wrong in that boy’s life. Likewise, if a boy is an habitual victim, the problem isn’t always the victimizer, but the climate or culture, where boys are routinely sorted into bullies, victims, or bystanders, and where every boy comes to see the victimization of some boys as inevitable because everyone subscribes to or acknowledges the victimizer/victim/bystander culture. Alex Gordon, whose eloquent bar mitzvah speech I cited above, told me that if you were an adult visitor to his school, you probably wouldn’t recognize for a number of days the dominance hierarchies in which, he believed, all the children had their roles to play-some as bullies and teasers, some as victims, some as passive bystanders lucky not to be victims. And worse, he said, if you saw it, you couldn’t do anything about it, because it was so deeply ingrained. You had to start younger than thirteen, he insisted, if you wanted to make a difference with kids. All children whose bullying behavior suggests serious trouble should promptly get the help they need: a careful and competent diagnostic workup and the development of an intervention plan involving home, therapist, and school, tailored to their needs and considerate of their social responsibilities. If adults show they will not turn a blind eye to the C, code,” or cede to a bully’s culture, then kids will quickly hear the counterpart message to “You can’t say you can’t play”: no teasing or bullying here.

Richard Hawley writes about another of his students, Tyler, who was a classic bully. “No one, least of all his parents, could recall a time when he was not, literally, dreadful.” As a preschooler, Tyler already showed a preoccupation with spiders and reptiles that most people are repelled by. During his school years, he kept poisonous spiders and boa constrictors that he liked to exhibit unexpectedly to people he wanted to terrify. “‘How big are your snakes?’ I asked him once, when I learned he kept boa constrictors. ‘They’re getting big enough to kill you,’ he said, smiling but not joking. “

Tyler took special pleasure in threatening younger boys. By the end of junior high school, his bullying had become generalized into antisocial behavior. He voiced the slogans and wore the symbols of Nazis and of the Ku Klux Klan. A succession of child therapists didn’t lessen his troublesome behavior, and he was eventually expelled for repeated racial harassment of two black classmates.

Maybe therapists weren’t the answer, or not the only answer. Whenever racism is part of the script, I always worry about what the child is exposed to at home. Too often, the problem is seen as the child, when in fact the child is expressing a family pathology.

And what is the school’s role? Much more than girls, boys are likely to express psychological distress with overt aggression. Not to intervene telegraphs to all boys and girls that adults can’t and won’t respond to serious-and dangerous-symptoms.

This is one lesson, I think, to be gleaned from several recent tragedies where boys have brought guns to school and killed or wounded schoolmates and teachers. Nearly all of the boys signaled their distress in advance in some way, and some even telegraphed their intentions, mainly to peers. But in all the stories where threats were made, no one really believed they would be carried out.

The merciless teasing and bullying of boys by other boys of higher status that is permitted to go on in many schools, especially those dominated by athletes, appears to have played a part in some of these murders; in some instances, boys have brought guns to school to act out their resentment over such treatment.

The “victim to victimizer transition” is a familiar notion to people who work in battered women’s shelters, child abuse treatment programs, and adult prisons. Stated simply, the offending persons have themselves previously suffered serious abuse, often in childhood, and have stored up horrible feelings of not being able to stop the unacceptable from happening to them and their dearest intimates. The transition from passivity to action is made as boys channel their bottled rage and shame into dominating and controlling the lives of other innocents, abusing and sometimes killing the very people they should protect and love. Along the way, they learn to justify their behavior to themselves. This is the most corrosive character-forming experience I know.

Stopping the cycle of violence will require a sustained effort to ensure the physical and psychological safety of both homes and schools. Far too few political leaders take this task seriously, although the murders at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, have sounded a wake-up call. Good mental health services for all abuse victims are necessary, but I should also express my dismay at the shortage of capable psychological assessment and appropriate treatment. Neither the will nor the money is there, and we continue to reap a whirlwind of suffering for our inaction.

Bullying and Self-regard

The Harvard Mental Health Letter recently described a study touching on the self-image of aggressive children. Second and third-grade teachers in some Texas schools were asked to identify two or three children in their classrooms with habits of teasing, intimidating other children, and starting fights. Forty-six of the sample of sixty-two students were boys. These students were compared with fifty-three “average” (nonaggressive) children from the same classrooms matched for age and sex.

Teachers, parents, and other children showed the expected responses to the bullies, but the bullies apparently had no idea what others thought of them. They tended to deny any conflict with other children or with their mothers (they considered it acceptable to admit more than average trouble with teachers).. . . Above all, they were likely to think that others saw them as they saw themselves. They believed they were held in high esteem by their mothers and by other children; many gave themselves the highest possible ratings on these scales. Nonaggressive children almost never did; they were more likely to underestimate how well others thought of them…. The authors suspect that the apparent self-satisfaction is a pose that disguises hidden insecurity and emotional conflict, but they admit that helping these children is difficult as long as they see no need to change.

Some bullies have suffered bullying at home or witnessed domestic violence against their mothers and felt inadequate to deal with it. Others have been sexually abused. Still others have overdosed on media scripts that sensationalize and glorify violence as well as masculine and feminine stereotypes. In general, I believe, a bully needs professional help beyond the competence of the typical parent or teacher, while interrupting, explaining, and reducing teasing that isn’t an expression of bullying is within the competence of the ordinary adult motivated to study its dynamics.

Bullying and teasing also differ with respect to their prevalence. Teasing of one degree or another, as I’ve said, is ubiquitous. Almost every classroom and playground is the site of some of it. Bullying is much rarer, yet prevalent enough to merit everyone’s concern. A 1995 survey of junior and senior high school students in the United States showed 5 percent of the boys (one out of every twenty, or about one boy in every classroom) acknowledging being the victim of at least one violent episode (not a mutually inspired fight) initiated by another boy.

Many observers have noted that the victims of teasing and even of bullying are sometimes complicit in the event. They don’t necessarily want it, but they don’t know how to escape it. Victims, victimizers, and bystanders are not separate actors. They are linked, as much as they may despise one another, by a culture in which violence is accepted as inevitable. The challenge is to break through this entire culture, in school and in the family, to say “No, this is not acceptable.” As the following example from a superb violence prevention program shows, boys can embrace an alternative view, one that demonstrates that children can care, and can effectively teach other children kindly alternatives to violence in the face of conflict. Monica and Kiesha were yelling at each other. Jose, a student mediator, heard the commotion and put his skills to work. He approached the girls and got them to stop yelling. He asked each of them if they would agree to a mediation. They agreed. He set out the ground rules he learned in his training. No name calling. Each side would listen respectfully to the other. They would work together to find a solution. Each girl told her side of the argument. Careful not to take sides, Jose listened to each side, repeating each girl’s story and clarifying points as necessary. After each was done, Jose restated each girl’s position. He helped them talk out problems and reach an understanding. Peer mediator coordinators report not only that schools become friendlier and fights become fewer, but the young mediators report improved academic performance, better home lives, and boosted self-confidence.


Most parents have to deal with teasing and bullying. Their children are either suffering it, or committing it, or both.

If a parent is predominantly egocentric in his approach to the problem he will read the situation through his own experiences and needs. If the parent has suffered teasing on the same theme in his own past and still feels resentful about it, he may want to get very involved in the situation,, overidentified” is the clinical term for it-and fight his son’s battles for him. But if the son is being teased for something the father has never had experience with, he may not be touched by his son’s experience. What an egocentric parent may fail to take into consideration is his son’s needs and preferences, and the rules and resources available in his son’s situation. In some cases, “he’s got to work it out for himself ” may be a very wise strategy because the parent realizes that his son wants to do that and can handle it, and the place where he is facing the teasing will help him. But in other cases, parental detachment may leave a boy feeling as though he has no allies.

If a parent’s inclination is to resolve such situations through the application of rules, again there may be very different outcomes depending on the rules and their effectiveness. Many venues, including many schools, are so tolerant of teasing, and even of bullying, that stated rules are of little import. There are, moreover, informal rules such as “boys don’t cry” and “boys don’t tattle” that perversely reinforce teasing and bullying practices.

It should be pointed out that adults are erecting ever stronger safeguards for themselves in public places and private workplaces under the umbrella of preventing “harassment” of colleagues, subordinates, and strangers. Many of the practices now being outlawed are analogous to teasing and bullying, but we are slow to apply these safeguards to children except in dramatically abusive instances.

There are some excellent rules that parents might consider putting into effect with their children, and in their households, and even in public. A respect policy” might be instituted for everyone in the household; if a whole school can do it, a household can do it. The sanctions needn’t be shame. Another technique is to ignore the teaser, neither looking at him nor fronting him.

Another set of responses to teasing involves repartee. The teased person diverts or deflects the tease with humor or sarcasm or distraction, or even with what Robert Kayton calls “fogging”-defusing the tease by passively agreeing with its message so that the teaser doesn’t derive the pleasure of having the teased boy rise to the bait. Another psychologist, Fred Frankel, emphasizes the use of humor to undermine the teaser”I heard that one in kindergarten.” “That’s so old it’s got dust on it.” Frankel asserts that these responses do work. He suggests that boys below third grade level should be coached in specific responses, the simpler the better. Boys from third grade on can be coached in the tactic, taught a number of possible responses, and encouraged to use their repertory or invent new responses to fit the situation.

Most of the suggested responses are themselves put-downs, though of less demeaning quality, probably, than the content of the tease that initiated the event. So they do nothing to deal with the general situation. When the defensive tactic is successful, presumably, the teaser goes off in search of more vulnerable prey. The slightly hostile content of many recommended responses does, however, usefully remind us that boys who are teased often feel angry as well as shamed. The repartee gives them an opportunity to work off some of the anger. Boys who have been teased and have not asserted themselves in response need encouragement to express their anger in some form rather than nursing it below the surface. Parents and other caregivers should avail themselves of every opportunity to break “the code” against reporting teasing and bullying to adults. Boys can be taught at home and in school that the code only makes it easier for aggressive and angry boys to make others miserable. Reporting misconduct should never be disparaged as “tattling,” but again boys should be taught that if the report or complaint can be made evenhandedly (and in behalf of others rather than oneself, which is why teaching boys advocacy for others who are mistreated, creating a system of mutual solidarity, is so important) rather than emotionally, it may be responded to more vigorously by adults.

Teasing and bullying are subjects that lend themselves well to understanding the limited way rules are often applied, and the more constructive ways they might be construed. The limited way is to view rules rather rigidly as principles or policies that, if violated, lead to punishments. Rules may be viewed this way both at home and at school. At school, the punishments for some violations may be stated in writing for parents and students to learn as the student enters the school. But the weakness of this approach is the same as for the rules for observing speed limits on the highway. You may speed without being caught, and feel little compunction about it; if caught and fined, you are still free to speed again. The rules that might be applied to teasing and bullying, however, might better be seen as ideals that the community (family or school or playground) aspires to realize for the good of its members. When the ideal of respect for everyone is articulated, then teasing and bullying become injuries to the community. The way to heal such an injury is to heal the offender as well as his target, and to reinforce the values of the community. Punishment doesn’t necessarily accomplish that. Rather, one has to ask the offender: Why are you doing that? What makes you need to build yourself up by tearing others down?

I believe that in teasing and bullying the most healing things happen when one stops judging and punishing and begins to investigate and treat the why of the behavior. This perspective automatically elevates the consideration of teasing or bullying above the level of rigid rules and penalties to an examination of everyone’s needs and injuries. Then one often sees that the schoolyard bully, for example, has helplessly witnessed or suffered bullying at home. The bully needs as much help as his victims, and treating his behavior thoughtfully and compassionately, but firmly, is the surest way to stop his predations.

When the subject of teasing is moved to the higher levels of awareness, parents and teachers see that children themselves have much to contribute to the elimination of the problem. The thesis behind many programs to “bully-proof ” schools-that all the kids can be classified as bullies, victims, or bystanders-may need revision to incorporate the proactive potential many kids exhibit. Barrie Thorne has set forth ideas for promoting cooperative relations between boys and girls at school. Perhaps the most important of these ideas is to intervene actively to challenge the dynamics of stereotyping and power.

Drawing boys and girls together is only one step; the dynamics of stereotyping and power may have to be explicitly confronted. Barbara Porro and Kevin Karkau engaged their classes in discussions about gender stereotyping, persistent separation between girls and boys, and the teasing (‘sissies; I tomboys,”you’re in love’) that kept them apart. Porro explained sexism to her students by finding terms that six-year-olds could understand…. Raphaella Best, a reading teacher … encouraged (students) to challenge stereotypes, especially the one boys had of themselves as superior and girls as inferior, and she tried to help boys and girls relate to one another as friends rather than potential romantic partners.

When adults have forcefully and consistently taught the inappropriateness of teasing and bullying, and have shown boys how and why these behaviors occur, boys are ready to grasp the potential of collective action in teasing and other problem situations. It may not be as romantic as the old Western plots-the lone hero standing up all by himself to the bad gang but it’s definitely more effective. Here’s an example from my conversation with Brady, an eleven-year-old: “One time a kid kept throwing erasers across the room and hitting kids, and the kids were saying ‘ouch’ and they would end up getting in trouble. So one day me and a bunch of other kids went up to him and said,’It’s starting to get annoying that we end up getting in trouble all the time when you are the one starting the trouble. ‘After that he sort of went off by himself, and I think that’s what had an impact on him. Everyone realized that if we wanted to make a difference we could ‘ ” I said to Brady, “Were you the leader of the group challenging your classmate to behave differently?” He replied, “It was sort of all of us together. It seemed like it had gone too far, so we decided to do something about it.” Stories like Brady’s give me optimism that a less fatalistic view may prevail.


184 R. Kayton, “Help Your Child Cope with Teasing,” Washington Parent Magazine, n.d., at 1/teasing.html.
186 D. M. Ross, Childhood Bullying and Teasing.What School Personnel, Other Professionals and Parents Can Do (Annapolis Junction, Md.: American Counseling Association, 1996).
189 B. Thorne, Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 77.
192 J. Mitchard, “With Friends Like These . . . ” Parenting (December/ January 1999), 105.
193 R. A. Hawley, Boys Will Be Men: Masculinity in Troubled Times (Middlebury, Vt.: Paul S. Eriksson, 1993), 86-92.
194 bullying L. Bennett and S. Fineran, “Sexual and Severe Physical Violence Among High School Students: Power Beliefs, Gender, and Relationship,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68 (1998), 645-652.
194 L. Sjostrom and N. Stein, Bully Proof- A Teacher’s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Fourth and Fifth Grade Students (Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1996).
195 D. Olweus, Bullying at School (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
195 L. Grinspoon, ed., “Aggressive Children and Their Self-Esteem,” Harvard Mental Health Letter 14 (1998), 3.
196 J. N. Hughes, T. A. Cavell, and P. B. Grossman, “A Positive View of SelfRisk or Protection for Aggressive Children?” Development and Psychopathology 9 (1997), 75-94.
197 violence prevention program M. Feldman, J. Kral, Z. Obeid, S. Respass, B. Coleman-Miller, and D. Prothrow-Stith, Peace By Piece: A Violence Prevention Guide for Communities (Boston: Harvard School of Public Health, 1998), 42.
200 F. H. Frankel, Good Friends Are Hard to Find: Help Your Child Find, Make and Keep Friends (Indianapolis, Ind.: Perspectives Press, 1996).
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208 “Being 13,” New York Times Magazine, 66.
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210 B. Speicher-Dubin, “Relationships Between Parental Moral Judgment, Child Moral Judgment and Family Interaction: A Correlational Study,” Dissertation Abstracts International, 434 (1982), 1600B.