Dear Dr T,
I am worried about my youngest daughter who is starting fifth grade this year. She is an above average student who excels in math but has some mild difficulty in reading. What I worry about is the fact that the teachers say that she sometimes acts silly and may even become something of a class clown.
Should I be concerned?
There are two important issues here. The first is to understand why a child might choose to develop the role of class clown. The second is what to do about it.
There is any number of reasons why a child would choose this role. As parents, we want to help our children develop their potential and become all that they can be, rather than adopt an identity which can become a self fulfilling prophesy – that of the funny man whom no one takes seriously.
Here are some reasons why a child would become class clown.
Need for attention
We all need and crave attention. This begins from the day we are born; unlike other members of the animal kingdom – we cannot survive without the attention of the adults around us. As we mature, though our need for physical attention decreases, our emotional need for attention remains constant. We all, particularly children, want to be noticed, validated, and recognized. Our emotional survival depends on it.
The best kind of attention is positive attention- praise and admiration for who we are and what we do. What is intolerable is no attention- when we are ignored or unnoticed. So, often when we cannot obtain positive attention [we are not ‘special’, environment is hostile or unwelcoming] and cannot stand being ignored, we choose to negative attention [tongue lashing, punishment etc]. Being ignored is so painful [‘you do not exist’], that we prefer negative recognition. In the race between negative attention vs. no attention at all – negative attention wins hand down.
Zevie is a nice enough kid who is shy and lost in his large family and even larger class. He is not the boy who is ever chosen to be chazzon or have a main role in a play. He generally is picked one of the last at recess. Zevie never said much- or stuck out in any way until third grade when he started copying the rebbe whenever he turned his back. The other kids really enjoyed Zevie’s performance and egged him on. Despite the fact that Zevie was sent to the principal and his parents were even called down to the school, he so enjoyed his classmates’ applause that no way was he going to stop.
Need to cover up
The role of class clown might not be a need for attention, but rather a cover for a real, or perceived, inadequacy. We often feel shame about our less than perfect selves, and to forestall someone else noticing our flaw, we divert their attention by being ‘funny.’ You mention that your daughter has some difficulty in reading – it is possible that she clowns around to prevent others from noticing this?
Rick Lavoie in one of his incomparable videos tells of a child who would execute some prank like knock over his friend’s chair whenever he didn’t know an answer and thought the teacher might call on him. Of course, the teacher would then send him out of the class – where he didn’t have to risk giving the wrong answer. The conclusion? Some students would rather be labeled ‘bad’ than ‘stupid’- ‘funny’ rather than ‘dumb’, particularly by their fellow classmates.
Need for fun
Some children play class clown simply to have fun. We all need diversion and fun, and some school programs do not provide enough outlets [gym time, equipment etc.] to satisfy the fun quotient of a particular child. When that fun-loving kid also lacks the social sense to understand when his pranks start bothering his peers, the need for fun can get the child in real trouble.
Goldie is an exuberant, high-spirited student who has a great sense of humor. She is also very bright and chafes at the long day with its endless repetition for the slower students. To amuse herself, and others, Goldie has developed a combination voice/hand routine that cracks up her classmates. As soon as she grasps the material, Goldie begins her routine, often to the amusement of her friends. However, at times her classmates want to learn or concentrate and they find Goldie and her tricks distracting. Unfortunately, Goldie lacks the social savvy to read her friend’s reactions, and she just forges ahead, without checking if her behavior is working. So, though Goldie is only having fun and doing what her friends may enjoy – she is often seen as simply annoying.
Clearly, the class clown, as entertaining as he might be, needs help in both adjusting his behavior and in seeing his impact on others. Look for tips on how to help the class clown help himself in my next column.
Reprinted with permission from Binah magazine.