Should Parents Tease Their Children?

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 

It’s a tricky subject, however, because teasing comes in so many flavors. Teasing among family members and teasing at work. Gentle teasing and mean teasing and flirtatious teasing. Teasing that’s really a disguised compliment, and teasing that’s really a masked attack. Teasing that makes people feel included and recognized, and teasing that makes people feel excluded and diminished.

Done well, and in the right situation, teasing can be a very constructive way for people to relate to each other. However, as the comments make clear, just saying that you’re “teasing” doesn’t mean that your remarks will be well-received.

As the passage from David Dunning pointed out, research shows that teasers tend to believe that their teasing is perceived more playfully than it actually is:

People commonly tease each other, but it appears that people who are teased misunderstand the intentions of the person doing the teasing. Often, teasing is done in a spirit of affection and playfulness, and teasers attempt to convey these intentions through subtle nonverbal cues. However, those who are being teased tend to miss these benign aims. When they describe a time they teased their roommate, people tend to describe the action as more humorous and lighthearted than does the person being teased, who instead rates such incidents as more malicious and annoying. The good intentions of teasers are just not as obvious as teasers believe.

So if you assume that people enjoy your teasing, you might well be wrong.

Teasing hasn’t been a big influence in my life, mostly because my parents never allowed much mean talk or teasing when I was growing up. Back then, I sometimes groused about the lack of tolerance for sarcasm, irony, teasing, etc., but now I try to enforce the very same rules with my children (and husband). Sweet, lighthearted teasing is wonderful—but it’s very easy for teasing to take on a meaner edge.


Because I’ve been thinking about this issue, I was struck by a passage from Michael Thompson’s outstanding book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. I’ve read this book twice now, and I find it enormously illuminating and helpful.

Here’s Thompson’s admonition about teasing (it’s rare to see an expert be so adamant in his advice!):

When children get overwrought about their social lives, it is tempting for parents, especially fathers, to tease them about it. Don’t do it. The pain is real, even if it seems out of proportion to the situation. Teasing just makes the child feel more alone, which actually makes them even more desperate to be liked and accepted by the group. So be compassionate instead of putting a child down. If you want to lose the trust and respect of your eighth grade daughter, there is no faster way to do that than to comment sarcastically about her social struggles. Please don’t tease your children about their social problems. No good can come of it.

It’s easy to imagine that a loving parent might believe that teasing children in such situations would help give them a sense of perspective, or show them the value of maintaining a sense of humor, or reassure them that their troubles aren’t considered serious by adults, or help toughen them up so they’re not as upset by teasing remarks or gestures by their peers. Thompson, it’s clear, disagrees with this point of view.

I’m looking at the back of my copy of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, and I see that Thompson has another book, Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems. I’m going to get my hands on that book, but I think teasing isn’t just an issue for children. Judging from the reader comments on the previous post, adults are affected by it, too.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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