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Not all teasing is bad, professor says; children engage in prosocial teasing just like adults

By Michelle Hall


Not all teasing that happens in the classroom, on the playground or at home is harmful or hurtful, says Mark Barnett.Mark Barnett

The professor of psychology and his students at Kansas State University have found through their research that most teasing exchanged between children is actually prosocial teasing -- which often includes playful, affiliative comments -- in contrast to intentionally hurtful antisocial teasing. These findings, in Barnett's most recent research, expand significantly on previous research on children and teasing, which basically only addressed antisocial teasing. In earlier studies, prosocial teasing has just been discussed in the context of adult interaction.

"Young children experience and observe relatively high rates of prosocial teasing and evaluate it quite favorably," Barnett said.

Barnett and his students' findings did show; however, that although prosocial teasing was more common than antisocial teasing, boys frequently reported antisocial teasing among one another. Indeed, boys were shown to tease more than girls, whether antisocially or prosocially, and girls often reported being teased antisocially by boys.

"This pattern of findings suggests that boys may be especially likely to tease in hostile, antisocial ways in cross-gender interactions. However, there is additional evidence that females may experience being the target of a tease as more aversive than do males," Barnett said. "Reciprocal antisocial teasing may be quite common in boy-boy interactions during fifth and sixth grade such that, within certain peer groups, boys give and receive antisocial teases at a relatively high rate."

Barnett said the next step in this research is to determine whether young girls are indeed experiencing more antisocial teasing at school, or, in contrast, are merely perceiving the teases they receive as antisocial. "This gender difference in antisocial teasing may be an important ingredient in boys' heightened tendency to bully peers," he said.

Barnett's studies examined fifth- and sixth-graders' perceptions of antisocial and prosocial teasing among peers and in narrated teasing scenarios, as well as some potential correlates of individual differences in their tendencies to engage in both forms of teasing. Within the study, elementary school students and their teachers ranked the extent to which classmates were prosocial and antisocial teasers. Additionally, students answered questions about how often they experienced and observed both forms of teasing.

Barnett's research group found that the more children were rated as antisocial teasers, the less positively they rated teasers presented in the prosocial teasing scenarios and the less negatively they tended to rate the antisocial teasing scenarios.

"Thus, responses to the teasing scenarios suggest that children rated as engaging in relatively high levels of antisocial teasing may not recognize, or may not be willing to recognize, as much as other children, the positive outcomes achieved by prosocial teasers and the negative outcomes achieved by antisocial teasers like themselves," Barnett said.

The more the children in the study saw and experienced prosocial teasing at home and at school, the more likely they were to be identified as prosocial teasers in the classroom. There was no similar correlation for antisocial teasing.

"Our findings suggest that children who experience and observe prosocial teasing within their homes are likely to learn this style of playful and friendly interaction and tend to carry it over into their interactions with peers," Barnett said. "Additional research is needed to determine the extent to which other avenues of socialization, such as television and the behavior of peers, influence some children to engage in relatively high rates of antisocial teasing with others. Children need to learn to be sensitive to the feelings of others so that antisocial teasing is minimized and teasing that is meant to be prosocial is not easily misinterpreted as antisocial and hostile."

All in all, Barnett said his research groups' findings suggest that children, at least at the fifth- and sixth-grade level, may give and receive relatively high levels of prosocial teasing.

"This contrasts with prior reports suggesting that most of the teasing among children occurs in the context of bullying and is intended to be hostile and hurtful," he said. "Although psychologists have tended to focus on negative interpersonal behaviors among children and adults, like prejudice and aggression, there are considerable positive interpersonal behaviors, including prosocial teasing, that are worthy of our attention.

"Rather than focusing almost exclusively on hurtful, antisocial teasing in children as a component of bullying that needs to be squelched, more attention should be given to playful, prosocial teasing in children as a component of healthy interpersonal relations that need to be acknowledged and, in some circumstances, encouraged."

Barnett, with the involvement of his students, has studied a diverse range of issues affecting children and adults' psychological development throughout his career. He has conducted research on how competitiveness influences empathy, the reasons children are sexually biased when seeking help from a parental figure and what important life experiences influence moral judgment. Barnett is also an expert in children's attributions, play and creativity, and psychopathology and psychotherapy involving children and adolescents.

This most recent study was completed with the help of K-State graduate students Fred W. Sanborn and Jeffrey S. Bartel, as well as former students Susan R. Burns and Stacey J. Wilds. This study will be published in the journal Social Development.

Summer 2003