“Don’t tease,” is a standard admonition of any parent. But while teasing can be cruel or a form of bullying, it doesn’t have to be. Though some are sensitive to teasing, prickling at the slightest jest, there is an upside to gently making fun of friends.
Of course, whether or not teasing is positive depends on its intentions. Mark Barnett, a developmental psychologist at Kansas State University, has conducted research on teasing, identifying two main categories: antisocial and prosocial teasing. He’s found that children as young as five seem to understand whether someone’s teasing is friendly or not, based on their tone, facial expression, and the relationship they have with their tormentors.
While a kindly manner makes a tease more pleasant, Peter Gray, psychology professor at Boston University, points out that the connection between the teaser and the teased is key.
“Bullying in general, including the kind of bullying related to teasing, is recognizable when the person doing the teasing is in a clearly more powerful position than the person being teased,” he says. “So, if you have somebody at the bottom of a totem pole in a classroom, the kid who’s always being picked on, the taunting of that child is not positive teasing, that’s bullying.”
Often, there isn’t a clear-cut distinction between positive and negative teasing, and those who’ve experienced nasty teases tend to be far more sensitive to teasing of any kind. Gray adds that playing alone as a child, without the constant supervision of adults, can shape how people perceive teasing.
Parents and teachers can try and protect children by trying to shield them from any kind of put-downs. Such kids then don’t learn how to enjoy lighthearted teasing, or how to react assertively if it becomes hurtful. “They’ve heard from adults that this is bullying and so they get really upset about it rather than knowing how to roll with the punches,” he says.
Despite parents’ concerns, there’s a lot of good that can come from teasing. Jokingly recognizing someone’s flaws can make people feel closer. “You take something about some individual and, in making a lighthearted comment, you’re accepting them, even loving them,” Barnett says.
Teasing can also help a friend correct a slight flaw, if done in a manner that isn’t overly judgmental. Even teasing about something that can never be corrected, such as a terrible singing voice, can promote humility, says Gray.
“We’ve all got flaws,” he says. “In a day and age where narcissism is becoming more and more common among young people, teasing is not a bad thing.”