Sometimes students dispense their put-downs to classmates they actually admire: “That girl can eat everything in sight but stays skinny as a rail.” This is likely intended as a compliment. But the fine line between funny and painful is easily crossed, leading to hurt feelings and even despair. Neither children nor adults do a very good job of recognizing the boundary. Of course, some put-downs are intentionally mean: “Bill couldn’t fit in the van for the field trip even if we gave him two seats!” This may bring tears from Bill, who knows he is overweight.
Children can be extremely cruel to each other, and they often believe the insults they hear, even when adults try to assure them otherwise. Shaun once told Mary her hair was so frizzy it looked like she had stuck her finger in an electric outlet. Ever since Mary has hated her tresses no matter how many times her parents and peers have exclaimed over her good fortune at having naturally curly hair.
Suggestions for Put-Downs
- Invite the students who have been insulting one another to collect data on the number of times they give or receive put-downs. By objectively gathering information, the children can gain perspective. If a student claims, “Jack always puts me down,” the teacher may ask, “How often is always? Once a day, once an hour, once a minute?” By learning the facts, both students may realize that the problem is smaller than they had supposed or bigger.
- Facilitate a problem-solving meeting with the students involved. Ask each child whether she is hurt by the other personal insults. Are put-downs being used to gain attention, to show power, or to intimidate a weaker classmate? Using this information, brainstorm for possible solutions.
- Encourage students to express their feelings and to let other people know when they feel hurt or embarrassed by a comment.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
- Teach that words can hurt. When someone makes a comment that feels mean or hurtful to the person being addressed, then it isn’t humorous. True humor doesn’t cause pain.
- Invite the class to look for examples of put-downs in movies, TV shows, books and magazines and to share and discuss them with the class. Ask students, “Is this funny or hurtful? Why?” “What makes the difference?”
- Discussing put-downs during class meetings is often enough to help students become aware of how much they can hurt – they just want to get attention or to look powerful and smart.
- When put-downs are a general problem in the classroom, place the topic on the class meeting agenda. The group can share individual interpretations of put-downs, why they put each other down, and whether the put-downs are perceived as funny or hurtful. Then brainstorm together for an agreement on the use of disparaging statements. This agreement might include the suggestion that anyone who starts to formulate a put-down should try to change the remark into a compliment.