The other day I was unloading dishes while half-listening to a conversation my 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and 8-year-old son, Liam, were having at the table. They started off talking about their friends at school, and my attention wandered as the conversation went on. Until I heard my son say something that jerked my attention back to them.
“Well, you’re so stupid that they’re gonna have to burn down the school to get you out of fourth grade!” Liam said to his sister in a nasty, taunting tone.
“LIAM ALEXANDER!” I was instantly livid. Dishes forgotten, I walked over to where the two of them were looking at me in wide-eyed shock. “Mom, it was just a roast!” Charlotte said quickly, casting a panicked look at her brother. “He wasn’t being mean, we were roasting each other.”
Liam sat quietly, wringing his hands and looking at me anxiously. I took a second to take stock of the situation, including the brief flash of genuine hurt I’d seen in Charlotte’s eyes when I whirled around.
I know what roasting is. My 12-year-old has been educating me for years in the brave new world of roasting, which is basically insulting each other with permission. There’s a tacit agreement that no one will tattle or get upset, lest the teachers come down hard on everyone in an attempt to eliminate “bullying.” But that doesn’t mean all roasting is equal. Usually there’s one kid who’s particularly good at it, much to the humiliation of the target and the delight of the gathered onlookers. Unfortunately for the target, there is no outlet and no means of self-defense. He or she must pretend to laugh, must not show pain, and above all else must never let anyone know that the often malicious insults have lodged themselves deep within, where they will provide countless hours of humiliation and torment as the child replays the moment and relives the pain.
In fact, over the years I’ve come to agree with the Washington Post that there really is very little difference between roasting and bullying — and in fact, roasting can sometimes be even more cruel.
Kids seem eager to dismiss the practice as good-natured fun, but I can’t imagine how the rewards outweigh potential costs, especially for tweens and teens. Living with junior high students, I’m acutely aware of kids’ vulnerability when it comes to comments about their appearance, intelligence, social ability and more. Exchanges that call out those things that kids already worry about seem ripe for misunderstanding and hurt feelings … But is it a good idea, regardless of the intent? Does this friendly fire toughen kids up or prepare them for the competitive real world? Do these comments hurt kids less because they are made in good fun? Donald A. Moses, psychiatrist and co-author of “Raising Independent, Self-confident Kids” and “The Tween Book” says no. “It leaves them cowering and makes them more frightened … If you’re there with your friend and he’s cleaning his pistol and he accidentally shoots you through the heart, will it hurt you any less because he’s your friend? … These ‘friends’ don’t have the judgment to know when to stop. Some do, but most don’t.”
I wasn’t imagining the flash of pain I saw in Charlotte’s eyes when her brother called her stupid, no matter how vigorously she was now defending him. But they had clearly been insulting — “roasting” — each other, so coming down hard on Liam wasn’t the way to go.
Instead, I asked Liam if he thought what he said to Charlotte was unkind.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “But it was a just a roast!”
“Buddy, calling it a roast doesn’t make it any less cruel. Do your friends roast you at school?” I asked. He shrugged, looked away, and mumbled, “Yeah.”
“And does it hurt your feelings, even if you don’t show it?” I pressed him.
His eyes started filling with tears as he replied, “Yes.”
“So even if you call it roasting, is it still wrong? Still unkind?” I asked him.
“Yes,” Charlotte piped up from the other side of the table. “It’s just another way to be mean.”
And so it is. I wish I could say that from that day forward, my children never roasted anyone again, but that would be a lie. They’re human, and roasting is viral grade-school entertainment. But I do remind my kids of that truth that they discovered for themselves every time a conversation about roasting comes up — and every time one of them decides to “roast” the other, the consequences are the same as if they had thrown out any other insult — because in the end, that’s exactly what roasting is.
Sticks and stones … and words really can hurt me: Pope explains why Christ includes insults in 5th Commandment