Lawrence went out for his high school’s hockey team. It was a tradition with the team that for the first month the veterans would regularly demean the new players. Criticizing their on-ice skills, but mainly making derisive comments – always obscene – about their manhood.
Lawrence knew this was part of the standard hazing ritual that went with being on the team. Still, he felt humiliated when they did it and was glad when it was over.
But he also couldn’t wait until next year when he would have his turn – with the next crop of rookies.
There is a definite philosophy that underlies hazing: It says that being the target of humiliation – where you actually suffer – is somehow good for you. It makes you a better person. It “builds character.”
In hazing, that’s the requirement for joining the club. If your initiation is not truly humiliating, it is not enough.
More than that, the philosophy says: It’s not mean, it’s friendly. It only feels mean. And, if you’re actually hurt by it, that’s your fault. You’re not tough enough. We are people who dish it out and can take it, and those who can’t take it are lesser than us. And if they want to move up, they better learn how to take it.
The possibility that such behaviour might be abusive or cruel is not part of the equation.
Unfortunately, there is one inescapable message built into this: Causing a person genuine emotional pain can somehow be okay, even good. And this produces only one thing: people who are more callous to the suffering of others. The more you buy into this, the more possible it becomes for you to cause or allow genuine suffering.
It’s a philosophy to which your teen – boy or girl – is constantly exposed – movies and video games where humiliation is a major part of the fun. Or in male professional sports, where trash talk is often demeaning and not playing tough enough is derogatorily equated with being feminine or gay.
What can you as a parent do to counteract this way of thinking?
One is to address it directly with your teen: “Humiliating, being cruel to somebody else is always bad. Being cruel as part of fun is always wrong. Nobody likes to be humiliated.”
A more powerful influence is whether this belief is a high priority in your interactions with your teen, and also how you deal with others. I’m not just talking about friendly teasing, but where you are mad at them. Do your words cross the line from angry to demeaning?
In the day-to-day raising of a teen, there are inevitably situations where they totally infuriate. You just asked Ivan to put all the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and got the usual response: “Why does it always have to be me? I’m really tired. Why can’t you do it?”
And you know he’s not tired, he just desperately needs to get into the family room so he can watch the reality show Cops and Sickos on the big TV.
“I have had it with you, Ivan. I have had it. All you’re ever going to be is a big, lazy loser watching stupid crime shows. A loser, that’s what you are.”
There is a fine but very real line that your child absolutely does hear you cross. They immediately pull back and shut down: “Screw them.”
They are hurt. They are really hurt, and there is no lesson learned except that they are hurt.
A better approach: “I’ll get mad at them, say angry words, raise my voice, but I will not demean them because I know that that’s different. It really hurts. I will not do that.”
And the message you send is, “Really demeaning someone goes against my religion. It is never all right. I will not do it.” It is a good message. Just the opposite of the above.
But there is another bottom line. Do you genuinely believe the idea that humiliation and suffering in the name of character-building is never good? Either you believe it or you don’t. And that, ultimately, will be what you pass on to your teen.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.