The Importance of Ickiness

The idea for this post came from a dear friend and fellow mom while we were huffing and puffing around the neighborhood and talking about how our kids were doing in their respective schools. Her children, in 8th and 10th grades, attend sprawling, very diverse, public middle and high schools in a suburb just outside Philadelphia. My kids, also in 8th and 10th grades, attend a small preschool – 12th grade Quaker school, also very diverse, just up the road.

Guess what. Kids are kids are kids are kids. The only thing that differentiates kids who attend public schools from those who attend independent schools is the educational choice their parents made. All but the most exclusive private schools have rich kids and poor kids, gifted students and average learners, children of all races and children of all faiths, jocks and geeks, kind kids and bullies.

While my friend and I were talking about some of our children’s less pleasant social experiences, I made a comment about how “icky adolescent behavior is necessary to prepare children for adulthood.” My friend’s response: “I never thought about it like that. You should write about that for your blog.”

Just a few days after the conversation with my friend, a child client offered additional inspiration for this post when she said, after about six weeks in a new school,

You were right. Kids are the same everywhere. Phoebe, age 12

I met Phoebe over the summer. She was experiencing some anxiety about making a transition from a large public elementary school to 7th grade in a small independent K-8 school. She had been through several difficult years in the public elementary school after her family moved from Philadelphia to a Bucks county suburb. Sixth grade had been so disastrous socially that her parents decided to move her to the new school in hopes that Phoebe would find a more welcoming community and make some friends. I was concerned that Phoebe and her parents had an unrealistic idea about kids being different – nicer, more welcoming, less prone to bullying – in the new school. I had pointed out to them several times that kids are the same everywhere; what would hopefully be different in the new school would be community norms that do not support unkindness as well as faculty who know the students well enough to engage effectively with them around undesirable social behavior.

The school year had not started off well. Phoebe was learning that, no matter how much the little school she now attended encouraged kindness and respect among all community members, it is not easy to be a new student among a group of classmates who had largely been together since kindergarten. She was finding out that the same unkind behavior she had witnessed at her old school is present in the new school as well.

There is a reason that kids will be kids, no matter where they go to school, who raised them, or how wonderful they will be as adults. Among all the other important lessons we have to learn and the essential skills we must develop during childhood and adolescence in order to prepare for adulthood, we have to learn to understand interpersonal relationships and to navigate difficult social situations. If there were no kids acting like bullies, how would we prepare to deal with an employer who treats us badly? If we never acted unkindly to a peer, how would we learn how it feels to hurt someone? If we do not see friends standing up in defense of the victims of bullies, how do we learn that this is the right thing to do? These experiences, no matter how awful they are as they are unfolding, are essential opportunities for learning.  (Find more on this topic in Don’t Go Back to Middle School and Zero Tolerance.)

When a young person behaves badly, there are three interrelated “feedback channels” that help her evaluate what she has done and, in most cases, to learn from her mistakes. First, she sees the impact – the tears, the hurt, the anger – of her behavior on the person she has wronged. (This is less true when the unkind behavior has happened via text or social media which is why these “weapons” can have such awful consequences.) The young person also sees the reactions of the bystanders, who ideally will let her know her behavior is unacceptable. Finally, the reactions of the targeted individual and the peer group can cause the young person to feel badly; her conscience lets her know her behavior is wrong. Because she does not want to earn the disapproval of the peer group nor to feel the discomfort of a guilty conscience, in most instances, she will change her behavior accordingly.

Even the nicest of the nice will experiment with some of this icky behavior. If you are lucky as a parent, your child’s behavior will not warrant major consequences for him, such as a detention or suspension, or a call to you from a principal. But rest assured, your child will, at some point along the way, test out unkind behaviors such as excluding or name-calling. It may be subtle, such as teasing that is done in such a good-natured way that it’s difficult to tell for certain that it is teasing. It may be blatant, such as leaving one person in a peer group off a party invitation list. While you should take such behavior seriously, you must understand that your kid is doing what kids do, and consider such instances of icky behavior teachable moments. Again, if you are lucky, your child will be one who quickly realizes that unkindness is not the way to go.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Importance of Ickiness

  1. Pingback: Bullying Is a Community Problem | What Kids Want Us to Know

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