How Hate And Enemies Can Help KidsS

In the wake of yet another scary teen bullying episode, it's hard to believe childhood enemies can have any positive effects — but psychologists claim they may help kids develop social skills.

Benedict Carey's Times article on the subject mentions two bullying-related suicides this year alone — and People magazine reports that five New Hampshire teens face criminal charges for bullying a classmate so severely that she checked into a mental health facility in early April. Still, experts apparently think views of childhood feuding are skewed by "a phenomenon called peer rejection: a small group of children are so different from their peers that they suffer far more than their share of bullying." This sounds a little victim-blaming — like having enemies isn't really so bad unless you're really weird — but it's true that there's a difference between sparring with one person and being ostracized by a whole group. And the former, it turns out, may actually be healthy.

Carey writes that childhood enemies may provide "objects of hatred onto which they can project the traits in themselves that they find most offensive." It's not clear, at least from Carey's take, whether said projection actually help kids work on their "offensive" traits — indeed, the benefit of enemies seem to have more to do with relating to others than with improving the self. Carey notes that "a truly devious enemy can prepare a young person to sniff out and avoid false or unreliable allies in adult life, when betrayals can be much more dangerous." And perhaps most interestingly, kids who respond to others' hatred in kind score higher on assessments of "social competence" — that is, according to psychologist Melissa Witkow, "when someone dislikes you, it may be adaptive to dislike them back."

It's possible that kids with good social skills to begin with simply intuit that the best defense is a good offense. But it's also possible that they can boost their "social competence" by responding to their enemies. Anybody who was shunned by a former friend in childhood remembers the pain of that experience — and how fruitless it often was to try to win that friend back. Maybe, as with a romantic breakup, hate is actually healthier. And maybe when others see you responding to an enemy in non-doormat fashion, they actually develop more respect for you. Of course, this approach probably works less well the more enemies — and the fewer allies — a kid has. It's also kind of cutthroat — what my mom always called "rising above it" apparently isn't all that helpful (of course, I could have told her this, and did, in eighth grade). I doubt that teachers or other adults are ever going to advocate reciprocal hate as a way of resolving conflicts — nor, probably, should they. But in the confusing world of childhood social life, it's kind of nice to know that saying "fuck you" to your enemies can actually win you friends.

Image via Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com.

Can An Enemy Be A Child's Friend? [NYT]
Five Teens Charged In Phoebe Prince Copycat Bullying Case [People]