Middle School Masochism

A recent New York Times article, “Teenage Insults, Scrawled on Web, Not on Walls,” by Tamar Lewin looked at a burgeoning internet trend wherein subscribers to sites such as Formspring can get anonymous (i.e. uncensored and brutally honest… or perhaps cruelly dishonest) feedback from others, which they can then elect to delete from their private in-box or post to a public profile on themselves.  Interestingly, albeit depressingly for parents, many kids seemed all too willing to post mean things about themselves, leaving parents in dread about comments so horrible that they would get deleted, but not before leaving deep scars.

Of course middle school kids were then free to post all sorts of mean comments, everything from snarky comments about your leggings to withering critiques of breasts and teeth.

I must say that I am not particularly horrified that middle-schoolers would be mean to each other, that’s hardly a news flash and, if Marshal McLuhan, was correct in saying that “the medium is the message,” then the web’s message must be that we’re all in this together—a pendulum swing back to community from the alienated TV days of the 60s and 70s.

I’m more intrigued to ask why people want, even hunger for, unfiltered feedback?  One guess is that in an over-praised time of “good crawling,” “genius use of the sippy cup!” and “she’s so gifted,” kids don’t really believe the hype.  Our world is so pervasively phony that Holden Caulfield would probably be surprised to learn that it was possible to get worse than in his day, and thus anonymity creates the hope of truth.  Meanwhile, in pockets such as our “Virtual Salon,” we find a yearned-for kindness as well (while at the same time we shudder at the prevailing cruelty out in the “real” world, as well as in the virtual world that kids may inhabit).

After all, if my teeth are crooked and my parents have been telling me that I’m a rock-star and a movie-star all rolled into one, I want, even need, to know what the world really thinks.  There is a great scene in Please Give where a teen daughter with a huge zit on her face is told by her mom that it’s not noticeable, and she comes to the table at a dinner party with underwear on her head—upon removing them, a straight-talking guest shows her horror—to which the kid is able to respond well, because it’s real (complications ensue).

To complicate our own matters at hand, despite all attempts to be Gandhi and Nelson Mandela rolled into one, we parents fail.  We are all too human, and our kids have been listening to our negative private talk, our swipes and insults at the TV, in traffic and behind the other parents’ backs.  And so it would stand to reason that other people must be secretly thinking, and saying, bad things about us.  Hearing it is sort of like watching a horror film, we face the fear and hope to get some control over it (and, sadly, think about how to remedy or hide our supposed flaws).

Another layer on the mean comments likely has to do with envy and jealousy (not the same thing).  If one kid is flat-chested, for example, and sees another kid getting attention for her developing body, then it might tempt them to devalue that other kid precisely because they secretly idealize them in some way.  And what boy who has had a young crush hasn’t metaphorically dipped his would-be love’s pigtail in the inkwell—a confused lavishing of attention and also a ridiculously overstated attempt to deny that he likes her.

As parents it seems to be a decent idea to think about how mean, critical and judgmental we are of others, not to mention how competitive, and to consider what we are modeling in that arena.  And while we cannot shield our kids from the slings and arrows of outrageous teasing, we can invite them to join us in contemplating what a mean comment really says about the commentator and not just the target.  As we strive to own our insecurities and find community through the universality of them, we might organically release our bad bonding habits through dishing dirt, and try to authentically see the humanity in others’ foibles.

How might we expand our understanding of beauty in a vapid world that ranks and rates everything and pits people against each other in a gladiator-style mentality?  How might we shift our cultural ideals from “perfect” bodies and transcripts toward a more subversive, authentic and maybe a little bohemian gloss in which perfect is simply the way things are.  If mean comments are somehow “perfect,” maybe we can learn from them, deepen compassion for the meanies and learn to shift the opinion that matters from the other toward ourselves… while still holding to the notion that our true identity is the group.

It is hard for us to grasp that alone we continually come up against the obstacle of hollow victories and bitter alienation, while together we are invincible, at least in the love, nurturance and fun departments.

Another reason that kids might lay themselves open to cruel comments has to do with our culture’s festering narcissism.  Not really knowing who they are, kids (and many a so-called grown-up) may hunger for feedback as a sort of perverse mirroring, sort of like kids who cut themselves; they do not feel real, and the pain of an insult, or the scrape of a sharp object upon the skin has a bracing effect that can help concentrate fragmentation feelings and free-floating anxiety into a grounding, albeit painful, focal point.

A final thing to consider in the meanness arena is masochism:  the masochist unconsciously identifies with the sadist.  Thus the cruel comment can be a way that an angry, but inhibited, child might project their hostility into the blank space of an anonymous comment box, and feel pure and devoid of their own aggressive and destructive shadow.  Perhaps the illusion that the “bad” one is somewhere “out there” (down the hall, down the block, across the world) creates the notion of our own goodness, even if it comes with an imperfect body or reputation, as opposed to facing our own meanness in the mirror.

So, let’s dedicate today to thinking deeply about ourselves, our cruelty and the cruelty between our kids, moving not just toward kindness (although that’s nice) but toward a harmony of dark and light that allows us to join each other and form a more conscious and authentic world in which we are the group, and it is more perfect than we are generally capable of grasping at the individual level.  In a wide enough, and real enough, embrace there is more than enough room for all our kids in their myriad looks, spirits and differences.

Namaste, Bruce


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8 Responses to “Middle School Masochism”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I have been astounded at the mean-spirited remarks (and outright nasty ones) that are often viewed on walls and web sites. Is it better that people get these things out in this way, rather than through violence? Is it worse – the quasi-permanence of these messages? Do our online mediums encourage them, through the availability of anonymity?

    I worry for our kids. For seeing these behaviors on reality tv as well as online forums. I wonder about how our values and perceptions have changed in less than a generation, to bring about the seeming “acceptance” of this kind of behavior.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I’m hoping that if we can have greater clarity on the pain and low self-esteem of the posters and sayers of cruelty, eventually it would become socially viewed as the weak and as the wounded asking for help but not actually knowing how to ask for help.

      Currently our anxious and low-self-esteem (and inauthentic) culture manages to pass of cruelty as cool; in a sense this is an emperor’s non-existent clothes paradigm that calls for compassionate truth-telling.

  2. Terry Says:

    Two thoughts pop into my mind. First, I do think that the praise we lavish on our children does make them question their own talent. Speaking personally, my parents always cheered me on. I loved, I mean, loved them for their encouragement but I didn’t really believe them. But I’m not sure having parents praise you is such a bad thing. The problem comes when everybody else is giving you trophies for just showing up.

    The idea that posting cruel comments is a form of cutting is profound. That gets me right in the gut. I think you might be right here. It’s a way to feel. Even if that feeling is negative. Breaks my heart.

    Thoughtful post.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      My hope is that collective compassion might at least move our culture in a healing direction… heartbreak in the service of sad kids might exert some sort of butterfly effect (chaos theory and unseen large effects of small influences)—we never know.

  3. Linda at Bar Mitzvahzilla Says:

    I’m wondering if there isn’t a little narcissism in this also. Do they expect only great comments and then are shocked by the negative ones. It just reminds me that kids are way too into navel-gazing nowadays. How many times exactly have I walked past a teenager holding her arm out full length taking her own picture with her phone? I can’t even imagine that when I was a teenager even if I could have lifted my gigantic Pentax camera that far and operated it from that distance!

    And, just as an aside Bruce, I want to apologize for my arrogant comment the other day on your Bar Mitzvah post. Please forgive my complete stupidity and know that I’m not normally that dumb.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Linda, Yes I completely agree about the narcissism—and the importance of understanding narcissism as cluelessness rather than any actual positive sense of self. For more on that see “How is narcissism like footed pajamas.”

      As an aside back to your aside, please don’t apologize for you comment. I had to go back and read it again to try and see what you found potentially offensive—I thought it provoked a good interchange.

      Still, I’m glad to hear that you can be as insecure and second guessing about we say sometimes as I can be. It’s through communicating and clarifying what we really think and feel that we develop real connection. So I thank you for your candor the other day and today.

      And to anyone coming across these words, if I inadvertently hurt or offend please tell me so I can be kinder while keeping things real.


  4. Miche-de-Loches Says:

    “…Not really knowing who they are, kids (and many a so-called grown-up) may hunger for feedback as a sort of perverse mirroring, sort of like kids who cut themselves; they do not feel real, and the pain of an insult, or the scrape of a sharp object upon the skin has a bracing effect that can help concentrate fragmentation feelings and free-floating anxiety into a grounding, albeit painful, focal point…”

    Scary. Especially scary as I have a 7-year old son who is a living mass of “fragmentation feelings and free-floating anxiety”; he constantly pushes limits as he seeks ‘Intensity’ (in conversation/arguments, sports/fighting..). He always needs to know THE TRUTH. He seems almost to depend upon “negativity” as a way to express himself.

    So my question is, how do we lead them away from finding focus in painful masochism (and a secondary sadism for those who love him) and towards a more healing relief and centering? That is what we are working on.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Firstly, I would simply offer compassion as this can be draining and make us feel like inadequate parents when all we want to do is help our child feel loved.

      An older post on containing feelings might be useful (http://bit.ly/c7MyGP); a response to a reader about things never being enough for her 8 year-old also relates (http://bit.ly/duBVHv).

      I believe that yours is a situation where the hard thing is not knowing what to do, but finding the super=human energy to do it consistently (i.e. “catching you kid” being positive and reinforcing anything pro-social with a firm loving touch, eye contact, words and engagement, while being neutral and thus not inadvertently reinforcing negativistic behavior by reinforcing it with attention).

      Grasping that the out of control, depleted and fragmented way your kid may make you feel IS there message (I think you receive that one loud and clear) and that through accurate understanding your child will grow solid. In other words do not try to “shush” their angst, but rather catch it and validate it: “you’re feeling really angry and confused right now” is more calming than “calm down, there’s nothing to be confused or angry about.”

      I hope other readers will send you any extra psychic energy they have laying around for you to use in getting through this challenging and exhausting juncture.

      Please keep me posted on how it goes.


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