Parenting

A Teacher Publicly Humiliated My Child

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We pulled our sons from the local homeschool swimming and physical education program, run by a very well-known health and fitness organization, a few weeks ago. We hated to do it. They had friends there, and our youngest was learning to swim. They looked forward to it. But the program did something utterly unforgivable to us: they used humiliation as punishment for our seven-year-old son. Not as a consequence, not as discipline — as flat-out punishment.

My 7-year-old is incredibly sweet and sensitive, but he has ADHD and can get very excited. In the middle of a game of sharks and minnows on land (AKA tag), he tagged a kid too hard, and the kid fell down. The kid, according to both him and his brother (who was present) wasn’t hurt. My son had not been previously warned for any behavioral infractions.

However, after this incident, he was forced to go sit against the wall for ten minutes.

My son doesn’t do well with isolation. He’s never disciplined this way at home, and we don’t believe that isolating children is an effective means of discipline, something The Institute for Family Studies backs up. As they say, it tells a child that “when you do something I do not like, I will reject you.” When my son justifiably felt this way, he began to cry and turned his back because he didn’t want other kids to see him cry. But the teacher wouldn’t let him turn around. He forced my poor son to face forward, so all the kids could see him crying, which only made him cry harder, which made the kids point and laugh more. My baby had to stare at the teacher, tears streaming down his face, for ten full minutes until they let him get up.

That’s using humiliation as punishment plain and simple. It is never called for, and I will not stand for it.

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When we talk about using humiliation as punishment, we’re not just talking about the famous cases of kids forced to wear signs like “I stole money from my mom’s purse” or “I was suspended for school for cussing out my teacher.” These instances of humiliation as punishment make the news, and we all cry about what terrible parents some people are, and how we’d never do that and those people ought to be locked up.

Except we need to check our smug attitude because humiliation as punishment encompasses all kinds of other things — things that you might be guilty of. Obviously, when you call your kid names — “You idiot!” — or say things like, “How could you be so stupid?!” you’re using humiliation as punishment. You’re making your child feel shame not about their behavior, but about themselves.

According to Psychology Today, “Kids can’t distinguish between their impulses — their actions — and their selves, instead of condemning the behavior, shaming ends up condemning the child, and making him feel bad about himself.” We use humiliation as punishment when we do things like roll our eyes at our kids’ inability to find their shoes, ask them “What’s wrong with you, that you can’t ever find your shoes?” or make comments like “You lose everything.”

It’s 99% likely you can’t honestly say you’ve never done one of those things. I’ve done them. I rolled my eyes and demanded “Why can’t you ever find your shoes?” just yesterday. But, as Psychology Today says, “As a form of behavior modification, though, shaming — whether obvious or subtle — is ineffective and even destructive.”

Basically, shaming as enforcement and humiliation as punishment doesn’t work.

The alternative to humiliation as punishment is simple: Don’t punish.

Stop clutching your pearls, Carol. I didn’t say you should let the children run feral. I said you shouldn’t punish them. I never said you shouldn’t discipline them. There’s a difference. I discipline my kids all the damn time. I don’t use humiliation as punishment to make them behave. I use discipline to teach them to act like kind human beings.

“The research is pretty clear that it’s never appropriate to shame a child, or to make a child feel degraded or diminished,” Andy Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan told Live Science. Such punishments can lead to increased anxiety, depression and aggression.

My baby had to stare at the teacher, tears streaming down his face, for ten full minutes until they let him get up. That’s using humiliation as punishment plain and simple.

Punishment using humiliation stops a behavior in the moment by making a kid feel degraded or diminished. Any punishment works by making a child feel afraid. Discipline stops a behavior by teaching a child it’s inappropriate. It takes more time and effort. Discipline should, ideally, relate directly to the event precipitating it (it should be a natural consequence), and it should be applied consistently. It should maintain connection with the child and be applied lovingly.

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For example, say one of my sons pushed the other. I might walk across the room and touch the pusher on the shoulder and say something like, “I see you pushed your brother.” This names the action that was anti-social, so there’s no confusion going on. Then continue: “We don’t push people. Pushing hurts — it can hurt people and it can hurt the things around people.” This names why pushing is bad, i.e., it’s not some arbitrary rule mama just concocted out of thin air. I may also say something like “We talked about this,” to remind him that it’s something we’ve mentioned in the past and that’s been applied consistently.

Shaming as enforcement and humiliation as punishment doesn’t work.

Next, I’ll impose a natural consequence. I might ask him to apologize. If they were wrestling, I may ask them to separate to opposite ends of the room or play a different game; if they were angry, I might ask them go to different rooms to play “until you feel like you can play together kindly.” I will likely also offer them the chance to sit with me until they feel calm.

I don’t lose my temper, because that teaches them to lose their tempers.

Um, theoretically, this is what ideally happens. A lot of the time I yell, “STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER!” from across the damn room. We’re all learning here.

Humiliation as punishment simply doesn’t work.

It just damages your relationship with your child. And I think we can start from the basic premise that none of us want to damage our kids.

Of course, you’ll lose your temper now and then and you’ll roll your eyes and things will slip out of your mouth and you’ll feel like an asshole and want to burst into tears. It happens to the best of us. But then we tell our kids we’re sorry and remind them to say they’re sorry. We give ourselves some grace. And try again the next morning.

It’s all we can do. And we can do it.

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