Pranks Aren’t All Bad

Pranks Aren’t All Bad

Some people love pranks and others hate them. Mixed feelings are common. How should you respond?

I overheard some parents talking about their middle school daughters playing pranks on strangers like ringing the doorbell and running away, and making prank phone calls. The parents didn't want to come down too hard on them for fear that the girls would turn to something worse, and were wondering if they should lecture them on the disrespectful nature of their pranks, try to stop the behavior with consequences, or just let it play out.

Their mixed feeling were compounded because when they were young, they played the same kind of pranks. And even though they felt like something about playing pranks was wrong, they were thinking it might be a healthy stretch for their normally well behaved daughters.

In thinking about this, I started looking for the hidden STRENGTHs adn asked myself the usual Language of Listening® question, "How could this (pranking) be working for the girls?"

Children this age are stepping into a new world where they are on their own more and more, so they innately know that forming a community with their peers is the highest priority. Knowing that children set exactly the right level of challenge for growth, I asked myself what challenge prank-pulling might represent for the girls. They were not pushing physical boundaries like some kids do (climbing on the roof, playing with fire, parkour, etc.); these were social boundaries.

And it came to me:

The challenge they had set for themselves was "making someone angry"*...on purpose!

It's the perfect design - anonymous on the phone and nearly anonymous running from someone's front door. The latter is probably funnier and more stimulating because the risk is higher, which means so is the payoff: social bravery.

The girls are gaining proof that they can poke the proverbial sleeping lion and survive! This is hugely important!

When stepping into the world on their own, social bravery is exactly the STRENGTH required to stand up for themselves, their friends and social causes in the face of teasing, put-downs or worse. It's one of the most important leadership skills for them to learn, especially if they have been raised in a culture of approval, where doing things that other people don't like is taboo. They need to know they can handle other people's anger and still survive.

So as a parent, what do you say to these children?

My suspicion is that the children are feeling exactly what their parents are feeling: conflicted - like something about their pranks is wrong, but at the same time, right. To help children meet their needs and feel good about themselves, explain how and why what they are doing works, set boundaries and help them find other ways to experience that STRENGTH.

Sharing how and why pranks work reconnects them with their intentions and STRENGTHs. That meets their need for power and leaves them with a deeper understanding of self. Without feeling defensive it will be easier for them to find other ways to test themselves that work for everyone.

The conversation could go something like this:

SWYS: "I understand that you girls have been making prank calls and ringing doorbells and running away."


Kids may look concerned.


STRENGTH: "You're not in trouble. As a matter of fact, of all the things you could do as pranks, those are pretty good choices since they don't really hurt anyone. That's probably why you decided it was OK, but still felt like something about it wasn't OK. You were right."


Listen and respond until the children feel safe. You can briefly share your own prank story if you have one, and if it will help the children feel understood:


Story/SWYS: "I remember doing the same thing when I was your age. It felt really daring and funny! It probably does for you, too."


When you feel connected, you can guide them toward their STRENGTHs and offer a CAN DO:


STRENGTH: "You might not know it, but there is a good reason for that. You've all been raised to be keenly aware of the feelings of others and have gotten pretty good at watching your words and actions to avoid setting other people off. That kind of carefulness can be useful in some situations, but not in others. Being afraid of anger can stop you from standing up for yourself or a friend or being the leader you might want to be, and you instinctively know that. Pranks like the ones you are playing challenge that fear. Each time you risk a stranger's anger and discover you are fine, you gain more social bravery, so pranks work for that."


Boundary/CAN DO: "What they don't work for is leaving you feeling good about yourselves as considerate kids. Must be something you can do that would achieve both."

Brainstorming with the kids can result in productive ways to strengthen their ability to face disagreement or the anger of others that they can feel good about. For example, if they are feeling bold and able to return to the doors of the homes they pranked, they could bring an apology gift (like baked goods) and introduce themselves this time. That would require social bravery and build the community at the same time.

Or, they might be ready to test their leadership skills in a bigger way by creating projects or a petitions for meaningful improvements at the family, community or global level. Along the way you could support them by teaching valuable negotiation skills for win-win solutions when they hit disagreements. The possibilities are actually endless.

Just remember that solutions work best when they come from the kids.

Showing kids how their actions actually work (even actions you don't like) allows them to manage their own behavior and feel great about themselves. Plus, when they become parents and their kids play pranks, they will know exactly what to do!


*Note: In actuality, you can't "make someone angry." You can do or say things they don't like, but it's their interpretation of your actions, words and intentions (their hot buttons) that determines their reaction. In the case of these pranks, one person might laugh remembering what it was like to be a kid, while another might rage. Children can be respectful of the hot buttons of others more easily when they know they are not the cause. 

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