Within limits, some teasing may actually help

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

I dislike the term bullying because it is such a pejorative term— meaning that it is so loaded with negative meaning that it can’t be discussed rationally.

I mean, nobody thinks of oneself as a bully. Nobody likes bullies. Calling anyone else a bully is always meant as an insult.

Nevertheless, bullying has been in the news of late, with the Minnesota Legislature passing a new anti-bullying statute.

The new law is not without controversy. Some people think the issue of bullying should best be left in the hands of local school officials. Others think the state is pushing a hidden social agenda in conflict with community norms.

Still, I thought it was necessary even though, within limits, some teasing in our lives is a good thing. It helps us learn how to deal with difficult people later in life.

No less a figure than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “The twinge of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years are needed to evoke the ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.”

The problem is that the teasing and taunting have gotten out of hand.

When I was a boy, growing up in a town virtually the same size as Little Falls, there were several boys around town that most of us thought were bullies. If, while walking on the sidewalk, I saw one even four blocks away I’d cross the street in hopes of avoiding a confrontation.

I still remember the day I did that and the bully saw me and crossed the street, too. I tried to avoid eye contact, and tried to go around him, but he stepped in front of me pushed me, and told me to get out of his way.

So I did, walking out in the street and trying to end the confrontation as quickly as I could. Thinking I was not worth his time, he went on his way, and I gratefully went on mine.

Then I became a parent, and 25 years later, my wife brought to my attention that one of our children was being bullied by a group of students. At first, I didn’t want to do anything about it, believing that getting a parent involved will only make things worse when the parent was not around. But eventually my wife insisted that I visit with school officials, which I did. I don’t know if the principal did anything, but I do know that shortly after our conversation, the other kids stopped picking on my kid.

Now we have reached a point where kids are committing suicide because of all the bullying. With new forms of social media, kids can broadcast insults to a wider audience. Leaders who are bullies can quickly turn an entire class of students against someone.

Social media, which allows us to bully and insult one another without fear of a physical confrontation, changes the landscape. Now vile things are said about others that, if you said them when I was growing up, would get the smile wiped off your face with a hand, clenched or otherwise.

Still, within certain limits, some teasing and taunting is a good thing for all of us.

Recently, I read an interesting book, “The Triple Package,” by two Yale University law professors, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. It’s about how certain cultural groups in America outperform others because of what they call “The Triple Package.”

These groups have three attributes missing in other groups of Americans: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.

Impulse control is easy to understand. It’s harder to get ahead, for example, if you start a family before you have the education to support one. It’s harder to get a good score on a test if you can’t turn off the TV and your cell phone and do your homework.

However, the other two components seem to be in conflict. What the authors mean is that groups with these two traits have a way of raising their children to believe their group is superior to other groups, but that individually, they need to prove their worthiness to live up to that high standard. The attitude creates a determination to succeed that is absent from other groups. These groups are not all about building self-esteem as setting the expectation that much is demanded of each member.

Most, but not all of the groups who the authors identify as having the Triple Package are immigrant groups. They identify Nigerian Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Mormons and Cuban Americans among those having these traits. Members of these groups have above average incomes, and their children are more likely to excel academically.

Some reviewers have called the book racist, but Chua and Rubenfeld note that after about three generations, all groups tend to revert to the norm, so none of them are genetically predisposed to success.. That doesn’t quite explain the Mormons, who have been part of American society for much longer than three generations, but the Mormons have faced a lot of discrimination because of their religion, just as Catholics once did as recently as three generations ago.

While I agree that bullying has too often gotten out of control of late, teasing and taunting have been around for thousands of years — even among siblings. So I am hopeful that the new law eliminates the excesses without eliminating the social testing that young people need to hear in order to learn the skills that build confidence and determination to get ahead.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by e-mail at [email protected]

  • tmac

    I felt like I was reading two different letters here today.I am not quite certain how “The Triple Package” and your take on the book fit into a discussion about bullying, But I do agree that there is a big difference between bullying and teasing.
    I also hope common sense is used to determine the difference when dealing with students.