Of Piñatas and Justice, or: Why Teasing Isn’t Always Funny

It happened several years ago, at a Grade One class party. The students were gathered in the gym, the teacher had recruited a few of us parents to help out, and someone was hanging a piñata from a basketball hoop. Excitement was building as the kids lined up.

A dad held the other end of the rope as, one by one, blindfolded six-year-olds stepped up to take a whack at it with a stick. The piñata swung a little, so they didn’t always make contact. The smaller kids were allowed to go first, since the bigger ones were sure to crack the thing open and end the game. The kids themselves approved of this order, for the young have an intense, sharp appreciation for fairness, and everyone wanted to get their turn.

The piñata survived splendidly, and was still swinging when the bigger boys took their turns. During one of the last tries, the dad holding the rope played a little trick on an unsuspecting participant – not his own child, I might add – and hoisted the thing higher so the boy missed completely, every time.

As the boy pulled off his blindfold, frustrated to the point of tears, I called out “Give him another turn!” The dad, laughing, was resistant to the idea, and gave me one of those “oh, come on” looks, but I insisted and eventually the boy got to take another swing. He recovered his composure, the party went on, and the moment passed.

So why am I revisiting this episode, five years later? Here are three reasons why:

1. It demonstrated how we treat boys and girls differently.

The same joke would not have been played upon one of the girls, or even on one of the smaller boys. The assumption was made that this particular boy was bigger, tougher, and could ‘take it’. Very unfair to him, and it was quickly apparent that he was just as upset as any of his classmates would have been.

2. It made me think about Teasing.

The old style of parenting, slowly waning but still in evidence today, allows for a lot of teasing. For their own entertainment, the adults provoke the kids, test them publicly, pull the rug out from under them somehow, then laugh when they get upset. They say things like “get over it”, and “life isn’t always fair”. While it is demonstrably true that life isn’t fair, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fair. In fact being purposefully unfair is kind of mean.

When a child is teased at a very young age, before they are able to withstand teasing and respond in kind, they learn this lesson: Grownups are assholes.

The newer style of parenting, from the 1960s and Dr. Spock onward, is gentler and more considerate of the child’s feelings. This approach is labelled by critics as over-protective, with the end result being a generation of young people who cannot get over their sense of entitlement* and cope with the real world. Critics scoff at “precious snowflakes” whenever a parent stands up for their child’s interests in the rough and tumble world. This is how my behaviour was framed when I spoke up for that boy and his fair turn.

And yet…

We spend so much time teaching our children to consider the feelings of others that it’s hypocritical of us to be so cavalier about their feelings and their point of view. As elementary students are taught now, teasing can be a form of bullying. Teasing is really only acceptable when both parties are enjoying the exchange. Sure, some children get a kick out of kidding back and forth, especially in a comfortable setting with people they know well. And many of them love sparring with grownups. But many do not, and a situation in which they risk embarrassment in front of others is particularly upsetting. We would do well to think twice before teasing children, and only do it when we are certain they will take it in the spirit it is intended.

3. It just wasn’t fair.

At around age four, children become obsessed with justice and fair play, a preoccupation which continues into their school years. “That’s not fair!” is their most common complaint. They are learning the rules of school, of friendship, and of life, and it is important to them that those rules be applied to everyone. Their thinking is very black-and-white; they do not accommodate rule exceptions very easily, or happily. Example: how do they react when they have to allow a younger sibling concessions, like allowing them more strikes before they are called out in baseball. “But that’s not fair!” they wail.

Even when the situation doesn’t seem all that important to us, they are sticklers for absolute and total fairness. Example: doling out candies and there is an odd number, leaving one left over – what to do with that extra smartie is really important!

So what does it say when a whole class watches as the adults in charge shortchange one of their classmates, on purpose? And why? Because it’s funny, and simply because they can. If their friend takes it in stride, with a laugh, I suppose it could all be treated as a joke, but he should still definitely be allowed another turn. And why should adults assume and prevail upon one child out of many to laugh something like that off, in front of all his friends, at the age of six?

We must try to see things from our children’s perspective and treat situations as seriously as they do. Not only with our own children, but also with children we do not know so well.

I definitely have trouble being patient with children I don’t know. I become irritated and brusque. But from now on I am going to make a greater effort to listen, observe, understand, and be kind. I’m going to stop and think before I tease and try to be funny.

Back to the piñata… Someone did finally bust that thing apart and the treats showered down. Piñatas are based upon the principle that Fortune Favours the Strong, but – and I’ve seen this happen many times since then – when the scramble was over those kids exchanged candies with each other until everyone had the same number. Justice for All.

* For the record, nobody has a greater sense of entitlement than aging baby boomers. Nobody.

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