It was during a recent meeting about student teachers that the use of sarcasm arose. One referred to a sharp-witted student as having used sarcasm to good effect in controlling her Foundation Phase class. “The children found it funny,” we were told. Did they? Or were they saving face by hiding their real feelings?

Is it possible that such young children are not yet sensitive to the barbs that come with sarcasm? It is, after all, described as the lowest form of wit, cruelly aimed at belittling or hurting someone, and to laugh at their expense.
The brief discussion that followed drew me back to a workshop I had attended, part of which dealt with the unwitting influence teachers can have on their charges.

Everyone loves the idea of being remembered for having been ‘inspirational’ or kind or having in some way contributed positively to the future well-being of a student who has passed through their hands at some point in their education.

What of the darker side though? What of the aspects of behaviour that have adversely affected someone? The workshop aimed at teasing out some of these qualities from the delegates to serve as a springboard for further discussion. Thus, we were asked to recall a situation when we were humiliated by a teacher. As you can imagine, a long silence followed.

At last one brave delegate shared her understanding that honesty is not always the best policy. She explained how proud she had felt when, in her final year of primary school, her appointment as the head girl was announced. “I had secretly hoped for this position,” she told us, “and was determined to be the best head girl ever.”

It was in this vein that, when the class she was in got chatting and making a noise while their teacher was out for some time, she dutifully raised her hand when the teacher asked the noisy ones to own up on her return. Instead of being praised for her honesty – as the others had been – this girl was subjected to the full blast of sarcasm from the teacher, all relating to her position as the head girl. “The worst is that I was the only one left standing. I quivered all over with fright, was made to feel the noise-making was all my fault and that I was a total failure for not preventing it.” The resulting humiliation lasted for over thirty years during which, this delegate said, she had shied away from taking on any position of public responsibility.

Another delegate expressed her humiliation at being a member of a primary school choir and having to be a ‘goldfish’ and mouth the words while the others sang. “I don’t sing to this day,” she said.

Even years later, one delgate still remembers the long red nails of a teacher tapping her on the head in time with the words “you – are – stupid!”

A woman confessed that she had been ‘rather chubby’ in primary school. A teacher of hers once commented, “You have two good-looking parents, what happened to you?” Unsurprisingly, this woman said she still had a complex about her looks and found it difficult to graciously accept personal compliments.

What these examples demonstrate is that humiliation can have a particularly detrimental impact on young children. A common thread of the discussion that followed was that these acts of humiliation still had the power to make the victims cringe decades after the event.

Is humiliation the sole preserve of teachers? Hardly, when one considers the significant role of parenting. Surely the way a child develops is also strongly influenced by the way his or her family functions? Perhaps then, as parents and grandparents, we too need to be more careful about the way we speak to our children and the behaviour we model for them.

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