I grew up in a family where insults were the dominant form of humor. We made fun of each other all the time. If you had listened to our insults, you would have assumed we were all ugly and stupid and useless.
It’s all fun. Laugh it up. Don’t be hurt. Just throw an insult back at the other person. Be as cruel as you want. Make fun of her face. Tell him how stupid he is. Whatever. Just laugh and don’t complain.
I was really good at insults. I’d practiced all my life and honed my skills. If I found out you worried that your nose was too big — a real example with a friend in high school — I would mercilessly attack you and make fun of your “big nose.” Isn’t it funny? Don’t you love it?
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I had been hurting other people. What’s more, I realized how much I’d been hurt by all the mindless insults. I completely changed the way I used humor. I was not going to hurt people anymore.
I saw a post on Reddit Sunday evening that reminded me of the sort of insults and embarrassments we tried to do to one another. It made me cringe. The man who posted it thought it was hilarious. His two children helped. He claimed the victim — his wife — thought it was funny.
But I still wonder why anyone would find it funny to embarrass or insult someone he loves.
As the man who posted it tells the story, “My wife spent 2 weeks in Peru teaching women entrepreneur workshops and surfing. Me and the kids made signs for her return.”
I’ve cut out the faces of the children holding the signs at an airport, but the two signs said, “Welcome home from rehab, Mom,” and, “30 days clean.”
Is that funny?
Yes, it’s a funny thing to think about in theory. It’s like a joke from a bad movie. But, no, it’s not something that loving and emotionally healthy people would do to one another.
Why would loving people risk hurting or embarrassing those they love?
When I eventually told my father that I had stopped insulting people — because I had realized it was hurtful — he took that as something like a personal insult. He said I was wrong.
“Oh, everybody knows it’s just a joke,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt anybody.”
I found from talking to people in the years that followed that other people had been hurt by my jokes. I eventually apologized to the high school friend whose nose I had mercilessly mocked, for instance. Although she had laughed and played along at the time, she told me — after I apologized — how much it had hurt her and how hard it had been to pretend it was funny.
I don’t want to be insulted. You probably don’t want to be insulted or embarrassed, either. If you grew up in a family where such callous treatment was common, this might not quite register with you. You might think it makes people tougher if you get them accustomed to being insulted and belittled.
Yes, your children are going to be insulted out in the real world. Other people are going to hurt them. Others will embarrass them. You can’t stop that.
But what you can do is to teach them that there’s an emotionally safe place in their home. You can let them know that they’re not going to be attacked or insulted or embarrassed or belittled there. Knowing there’s an emotionally safe place for them can make all the difference in the world.
Maybe the woman who was greeted at the airport this weekend with those signs above laughed. Maybe she said it was funny — just as I did when I was growing up desensitized to the hurt. But I have to wonder if something inside was just a little bit embarrassed and hurt.
If we love people — especially those in our own families — we need to treat them with respect and kindness and love. There’s no place in such a loving family for intentional insults and potentially embarrassing jokes.
Treating each other well creates long-term trust and love that outweighs any possible short-term laughs that might come from jokes that hurt.