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The Teasing of Christmas

Charlie Brown gets mocked for choosing a sickly pine tree for Christmas.

Flick gets his tongue stuck on a telephone pole in response to boys daring him.

Rudolph's red nose is the butt of the reindeer jokes until it proves useful.

Ah, it's time for the Christmas specials. And that means lots of heartfelt stories that just happen to have teasing -- or is it bullying -- as part of the themes. And all that mockery is just what we're trying to stop teaching our children, right?

Not so fast writes Dacher Keltner in the New York Times. Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley. "In Defense of Teasing," he argues that schools and workplaces that aim to be tease-free zones are missing the point:

"The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate. Sexual harassers grope, leer and make crude, often threatening passes. They’re pretty ineffectual flirts. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human."

Teasing, Keltner argues, helps people establish a power hierarchy. Nicknames, though they may initially embarass, can create social bonds. And teasing can be first steps toward romance.

So, do all those Christmas specials have it right? Is teasing generally a good, useful thing? Are we doing children a disservice if we try to protect them from getting teased?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  December 9, 2008; 7:10 AM ET
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In my elementary school the teachers and parents had teasing and bullying on a complete lock-down. We didn't do it and it didn't happen for fear of reprisals. Oh sure, there was some minor picking or "burns" here or there, but overall we all had to get along.

Then we graduated and went to Jr High where none of the other feeder elementary schools had any such anti-teasing or anti-bullying plan and we got massacred. I remember one of the coolest kids in my elementary school getting bullied by a really uncool loser bully, and reacting the only way he knew, by punching him in the face, remarking to us that our 6th grade teacher would NOT have put up with any of these people.

As an adult of course, I avoid people who tease because that's really weird, but there was a time when I recognized and regretted not being able to verbally spar with a bored 17 yr old because all I knew how to communicate well was either honesty or anger.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 9, 2008 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Teasing when done in fun can teach a child or even an adult to laugh at themselves, comedians are a good example,teasing is also a form of flirting even between young children, but when teasing is used to make another person feel insecure, self conscius, or inferior then it has gone to far. Instead of teaching children that all teasing is bad we need to teach them the difference between the good and the bad.

Posted by: debraf66 | December 9, 2008 8:00 AM | Report abuse

"Ralphie gets his tongue stuck on a telephone pole in response to boys daring him."

It wasn't Ralphie who got his tongue stuck to the pole - it was Flick (played by Scott Schwartz)

Posted by: r6345 | December 9, 2008 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I cringe every time a kid uses the word "stupid" in all the Charlie Brown specials. And it basically happens every 30 seconds on the Halloween one! Kids in schools get in trouble for saying "stupid" and I guess I don't want my children calling other people stupid or getting called stupid. And since those specials are kind of slow and not that exciting for a 4 year old, we just don't watch them. Not to mention the 2-3 very long commercial breaks in a 30 minute show!

Posted by: LBH219 | December 9, 2008 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Thanks r6345 for catching my error. I've fixed it.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | December 9, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm a bit mixed on this subject.

On one hand, I think that a little bit of teasing can help a person to see the lighter side of things.

On the other hand, when I was in the seventh grade, I was made fun of and cruelly harassed about my clothes, my hair and things that I could not change. It happened suddenly. One day these girls were my friends and the next they both decided that they weren't. This was in the mid-eighties, before schools started stepping in to stop this kind of thing. My teachers did nothing and neither did the guidance counselor I met with. I often wish something could have been done to make the situation better. Fortunately, I was in a class with completely different people the following year and we all got along just fine.

Posted by: NHmom | December 9, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

LBH219, maybe you should consider home schooling your 4 year old. If you feel like you have to shelter your child from the harsh language spoken by the Peanuts gang, you can expect him/her to end up being other student's lunch money on a regular basis.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | December 9, 2008 9:46 AM | Report abuse

fr bbcrock:

>In my elementary school the teachers and parents had teasing and bullying on a complete lock-down. We didn't do it and it didn't happen for fear of reprisals. Oh sure, there was some minor picking or "burns" here or there, but overall we all had to get along....

I wish we'd HAD anti-bullying and teasing in my grade school. In 4th grade, P moved to my school, and along with his toadie, N, made my life HELL for the next 4 years, little wretches. NOBODY, parents OR teachers, would lift a finger to stop it.

Posted by: Alex511 | December 9, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

the thing that i always had the problem with in "rudolph" was that santa was not a nice man. he does nothing to stop the excluding of rudolph. i could never understand why santa was so nasty. i loved charlie brown. left out from this list; i guess because there isn't any teasing is dr suess & the grinch. that is my all time favorite

Posted by: quark2 | December 9, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Stacey, keep in mind that the original Christmas story (i.e., the one in the Bible) has a lot of teasing and bullying in it.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 9, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Stacey, keep in mind that the original Christmas story (i.e., the one in the Bible) has a lot of teasing and bullying in it.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 9, 2008 11:25 AM |

Yup. King Herod was a MEAN dude. And the Romans - Oy!

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 9, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse


I have heard from both groups, but just so you know, being sheltered from teasing in elementary school did not really help me prepare for it during Jr High, high school and college. The teachers, really, aren't the people who should have tried to help me or intervene. Teasing was something I needed to grow and learn to cope with myself. Teachers can halt it in the classroom, but on the playground, the bus, and other places it's up to the student to stand up for themselves or go to therapy to find out why they aren't standing up for themselves.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 9, 2008 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Younger son can take it and dish it out - he and DH have some pretty amazing verbal sparing matches. Fortunately, younger son has a very gentle soul, so his verbal abilities don't get used much to bully or harrass other students.

Older son is an entirely different matter. He'd probably have been even more of a magnet for bullies than I was (and that's another long and painful story), except that he's always had a one-on-one aide since graduating from Communication Handicap (CH) Special Day Classes (SDC) to full-inclusion mainstream classes. He also, somehow, brings out the best of everyone around him. He's had students give him affectionate nick-names (how many autistic white boys get rapper-style names from their African American classmates?) and when the occassional bullying incident started, other students would protect him from the bully, even including 4th graders stepping in front of him in kickball games when another kid was trying to *really* hurt him with the ball.

Now that he's in high school, other students know who he is and what his problem is, and they don't mess with him over his on-going "dialog" (how many hours of his favorite movies are stored inside that skull of his?) or his acting out a light saber battle, for example, in the hallways between classes.

Partly, I know that it's whatever-it-is that makes people like him, and want to be nice to him, and want to help him make his way in the world. But partly, it's the amazing job Oakland has done teaching kids to be accepting of others who are different than themselves.

Posted by: SueMc | December 9, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Elder DD (age 12) has been struggling with teasing and I think she needs not to take it so seriously. Kids at her middle school like to tell her she "likes" so-and-so and DD gets so defensive and upset, she must make a great target! I can't persuade her that her reaction is just feeding the problem. I asked the guidance counselor if she had advice and I think she talked to the kids who were doing the teasing -- what I really wanted was for DD to learn to let it go!! I think it IS a valuable skill to learn to ignore taunts.

Posted by: annenh | December 9, 2008 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Why does a Jew watch Christmas specials?

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 9, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

WhackyWeasal - you are basically missing the point. Kids get in trouble for calling each other names at school and I would hope that the parents of my kids' friends would not allow them to call my kids stupid or other names. So why do we need to watch a supposedly kid friendly cartoon where all the kids call each other stupid every 30 seconds? It's sending all kids mixed signals. Mommy and Daddy don't let you say "stupid" and Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher doesn't let you say it, but Lucy and Sally on Charlie Brown can???

Posted by: LBH219 | December 9, 2008 2:37 PM | Report abuse


Re-read your post, you're missing the big picture. It's perfectly ok for kids to call each other stupid. It's not ok for them to mock people with disabilities, it's not ok for them to pick on people smaller than they are, to make fun of little kids or to, in many ways, make jokes based on how people "are" which is discrimination, bigotry, etc. Making fun of someone for how they act is perfectly legitimate.

The idea that kids can be raised to become something other than human, which my teachers tried to do when they banned teasing, fails when that first boy turns 13 and swims in all manner of naturally-produced steroids during puberty there is no hope that they won't call people "Stupid" and worse. Any suggestion that can be learned and retained during hormonal bursts is just foolish. I think a wiser choice, rather than prohibition, is to train kids in how to react to teasing.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 9, 2008 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Ya gotta learn how to deal with teasing. Otherwise you'll wind up like this guy:

Short version: during the Alabama vs Florida football game last weekend, a 51-year old woman was hollering "Go Gators!" in her apartment. A man outside claims he mistook it for a racial slur.

So he stormed into her apartment and pulled a gun on her.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | December 9, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

fr bbcrock:

>...Teachers can halt it in the classroom, but on the playground, the bus, and other places it's up to the student to stand up for themselves or go to therapy to find out why they aren't standing up for themselves.

Get the picture. NOBODY stood up for me, not even IN the classroom when the teacher was an absolute BULLY. I was not moved to a different class (there wasn't one), but that wouldn't have been an option, according to my "parents".

With the two nits, P and N, don't you think i DID attempt to fight back???

Get a clue, get a life, and grow UP.

Posted by: Alex511 | December 9, 2008 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I feel that children should fine tune their verbal sparring skills.

Posted by: nall92 | December 9, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Rudolph wasn't just teased for having a shiny nose, he was outright ostracized from the reindeer games for it! That's a big difference from merely being teased, and I can relate to him entirely. I went to a small private school for elementary school (sixth grade class of five), and when you're an odd duck in an environment like that, your social life is OVER! To make matters worse, the only kid in our neighborhood close to my age was my younger sister, and we only got along maybe one day out of ten. The school didn't do squat to stop it, and my parents' idea of helping was to send me to a shrink for three years (fourth through sixth grade) when I tried to compensate by making imaginary friends. Like that helped; when the bullies found out somehow about the shrink, that just drew their fire even more. And that stupid shrink did no good whatsoever...I knew what the problem was. I didn't need a shrink, I needed a FRIEND, or at least somebody who would stand up for me. It wasn't until high school that I actually had a group of friends who had the same interests I did to pal around with, and that was the best time of my life! Like Rudolph, I finally got my chance to shine and get respected for it. Public school is definitely better than private school...there's a bigger pool of potential friends to draw from there, and the odds of finding someone compatible are much greater!

Having said that, I appreciate Charlie Brown because of how he saw beauty in something that was overlooked by other people looking for the superficial and commercial(who among us wouldn't prefer a live Christmas tree to a fake one?), and "A Christmas Story" is just plain timeless! I love the way it looks at the world through a child's eyes, and I still applaud when Ralphie finally snaps and kicks Scut Farkus's butt! It's always nice to see a bully finally getting his comeuppance, and the contemptuous looks Scut gets from Flick and Schwartz afterwards...PRICELESS! Besides, even though not everyone approves of BB guns, how many of us had one present we wanted to get more than anything else in the world as a child? The one toy or whatever it was that we treasured more than anything else and still do today? So many lessons put into one movie, and they are still relevant today.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | December 10, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I was teased mercilessly in elementary and middle school for a variety of reasons -- mostly because I was different. It was never fun. It was painful and demoralizing and shattered my self-esteem. This was in the 1970's, when teasing and even outright bullying was considered normal. I think it is great that schools now go overboard to prevent children who are different from being verbally abused by their peers.

Posted by: rmoon1 | December 10, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

sigh...we all had an unhappy childhood.

Posted by: Sam888 | December 11, 2008 8:58 AM | Report abuse

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