The Mob Mentality

How many times have you tried to walk through the mall, only to find your way impeded by a group of teens who are talking and laughing  and oblivious to  – or blatantly ignoring – your need to get by?  “There’s safety in numbers” –  “Run with the herd” – “United we stand; divided we fall” –  teens have an intuitive understanding of these axioms and any others that apply to the strength of the group.  They may not band together  for the purpose of causing mischief, but once they are together, mischief sometimes follows.

I have a painful memory of attending a dance at our community center when I was in 9th grade, and falling victim to such a mob.  My friend had fixed my hair in a new way and assured me that a certain young man had his eye on me.  But my self-confidence was shattered when, while in the restroom stall, I heard several girls whispering together and then chanting, “Susan is a SCODE!”  They went out giggling, and I was left to gather up my shredded dignity and sneak out.   I didn’t know what a “scode” was (still don’t), but my friend thought it meant a really ugly girl.

I knew all the girls – we went to school together – and I wouldn’t have counted them as my enemies, except for maybe Melody.  A hard-edged girl, she got in trouble for being disrespecful in class, while I was a good student who got along with all my teachers.   Had she and I been alone in the restroom, she might have glared at me but otherwise ignored me.  It was the presence of her cronies that gave her the courage to attack.

That same courage can lead teens to take risks they wouldn’t attempt on their own.  It isn’t even a matter of daring each other (though that can happen); often it’s just one person getting an idea: “You know what would be funny/crazy/exciting. . .?”  And the rest following suit: “Oh, we shouldn’t, but – I will if you will!

But it isn’t just dangerous ideas that percolate in the mob.  Sometimes it’s simply loud talking and screaming laughter (girls) or loud talking and inappropriate jokes (boys) with no thought to how such behavior might be disturbing others.  Any parent who’s hosted a sleepover has lost sleep to these activities.

A wise parent will do two things to head off unwise choices made in the herd:  Avoid providing opportunity, and remain vigilant.  Parents who drop off their younger teens at the mall or at a school event without giving any thought to who’s supervising them are inviting the mob to form.  It’s wise to be near enough to keep an eye (and ear) on things and to intervene when necessary.  I often approach a rowdy (or whispering) group of students and tell them they’ve set off my “junior high teacher radar.”  It’s my way of letting them know I’m paying attention.  It also gives me a chance to gauge their level of guilt and decide whether I need to take action.

The Mob isn’t always a bad thing.  I’ve seen groups gather up the courage to approach the New Kid and make him feel welcome, or go to a teacher together and apologize for earlier bad behavior.  But it’s still a good idea for adults to sidle up and make eye contact or ask nonchalantly, “How are things going?”

Often that’s all it takes to head them off before they do something that could lead to them getting injured, getting arrested, or getting dead.

I Don’t Tango

I tell my students every year that there are two ways to answer a reprimand or a request; one will get them into more trouble, while the other will get the adults off their backs.

Let’s say Ralph is walking down the hall, jabbing everyone he passes.  Catching his eye, I give him The Look and beckon him over.

“Yes?” he asks, trying his best to look innocent.

“Please walk down the hall without touching anybody,” I reply.

“Okay,” he says with a guilty grin.

“Thank you,” I say. “Now continue as you were – WITHOUT touching anyone.”  And off he goes.

But look what happens when I call Sam over the next day for doing the same thing:

“What’d I do?” he asks defensively.

“Please walk down the hall without touching anybody,” I reply.

“I wasn’t touching anybody!”

“Good.  Please don’t ever touch anybody in the hallway.”

“I said I didn’t do it!  Why’re you always picking on me?!?”

Now I have a choice to make:  stand and argue with him, or find a way to defuse the situation.  I know from experience that no matter how long we argue, an angry teen will never reach the point where he’ll say, “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”  In fact, in such a situation things can get ugly in a hurry, so I will try a couple different tactics to defuse.

One is to hold up my index finger to stop him from ranting (I call it “giving him The One” – also useful for curbing interrupting students).  I’ll say something like, “Hold on.  You can either stand there and plead your case, or you can say ‘Okay’ and be on your way.  Want to try again?”

Another is to use humor:  “I checked my calendar today, and it said it’s Pick On Sam Day.  I’m just doing my job!”

A third is to deliver a mini lecture:  “When you talk to me that way, I don’t feel very respected.  Things would go a lot easier for you if you’d just accept the consequence of your behavior by saying ‘Okay’ or ‘Yes, Mrs. Acuna.’  Next time, you might try that instead of arguing.”

Notice I don’t engage in an argument that will make us both mad.  Instead, I try to give us a way to extricate ourselves from the situation with our respective dignities intact.

As my dad used to say, “It takes two to tango.”  I simply refuse to put on my dancing shoes.