Public Humiliation Is NOT Discipline -- It's Just Mean

by Paige Millington
Originally Published: 
A three-part collage with selfies of Bryan Thornhill
Bryan Thornhill / Facebook Schaffen Frederick / Facebook Tommy Jordan / Youtube

There are so many modern trends, hashtag movements, and social media fads that I believe do good things. That influence the world in positive ways. Stories of people paying it forward, feel-good images of kindness and helping one another and fighting alongside marginalized groups for equality. But one trend—one that’s been made possible by social media and the Internet—is not one that positively affects society. In fact, I believe it does irreparable damage to those it’s “supposed” to be helping.

The trend I am talking about is public humiliation as a form of punishment. You know the deal—kid skipped class or talked back to his mom, so he has to stand on a street corner holding a giant sign broadcasting his offenses. And for whomever didn’t see him in person, no worries. Mom posted it online for all the world to see! Or daughter came home late after curfew or was caught drinking, so her parents force her to chop off 10 inches of hair. And again, for dramatic effect, this is recorded and shared. With a million strangers.

Listen, I know parenting is tough. And this generation is often criticized for being soft. Generations before ours were tougher. Respectful. They knew they’d get their asses whooped if they misbehaved. Kids these days aren’t disciplined enough! As a former high school teacher, and as a parent myself, I can see your point. I had students who were extremely disrespectful. Students who could not care less about my lessons, rolled their eyes and talked back to me, and refused to do their work. I get it. Teenagers can really suck the life out of us, can’t they?

But do you know what else I know about teenagers? Most of them are good people, at their core. Most of them are desperately trying to find their place in this world that’s often not very kind. Most of them want nothing more than to fit in, have a few friends, and survive into adulthood. And yeah, along the way, they fuck up. Like we did, when we were kids.

As parents, how do we respond when they make mistakes? We are, of course, disappointed, sometimes even embarrassed ourselves. How could our kids possibly do this? It’s a reflection on us, right? On our parenting? Have we failed? (Hint: answer = no.) They are human. We are human. We mess up. They mess up. We deserve forgiveness. They deserve forgiveness.

Do our kids need discipline? Yes. Should they lose their phones or be grounded or have their video games taken away if they break the rules? Sure. Is it appropriate to make them scrub the floors or lose car privileges or write a letter of apology to right a wrong? Yes.

But no one—not your kids, and not mine—deserves a public online ridicule as a form of punishment. What is this fad about? What do parents actually think they are achieving with this? I’ll tell you what they aren’t achieving. They aren’t building a relationship with their child. They aren’t teaching their child what love and support looks like, which is something our kids still desperately need, well into adulthood.

They are breaking a bond, which may never be repaired. They are sending the message to their kids that Mom and Dad cannot be trusted to uphold their personal dignity. They are disrespected by their parents, which will only further their own disrespect of authority.

Katharine Kersey, a professor of early childhood education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., says that “Each time we [embarrass children with a punishment] we pay a price, and we drive them away from us, and we lose our ability to be a role model for them.” And she adds, “When you disconnect from a child, he no longer wants to please you, he no longer wants to be like you. You’ve lost your power of influence over him.”

Shaming our kids like this just teaches them to feel badly about themselves as people, not about their actions. It teaches them to fear us—what will my parents do next if I mess up again?—rather than helping them learn from this mistake.

Public online humiliation is not effective discipline. And frankly, it’s not about teaching kids a lesson. It’s about the parents. It’s about getting a public pat on the back. An online award of “Good job!” and “Now that’s how kids should be disciplined!” at the expense of a child’s trust. And don’t forget—once something is online, it’s there forever. So future colleges and employers can see that your child skipped school or drank alcohol or vandalized property. So your need for public validation about your parenting skills might impact their future in a negative way. And let’s be honest, we all want our kids to grow up and move out someday, don’t we? So why jeopardize their potential for success?

Psychology Today says, “Approaching such a situation as a discussion, and not a reprimand meant to intimidate or cause fear, can be a chance for parent and child to connect. Which is why positive discipline ends up being much more effective than shaming, guilting, or belittling both now and later.”

As a former teacher, never once did publicly disciplining my students in class prove as effective as quietly speaking to that child about his behavior. Kids would rather cut off a finger than face embarrassment in front of their peers. If I said, “Tom, please take off your hat. We will all wait until you do,” more often than not, Tom would refuse to comply, risking detention or a grade reduction, just to save face. But if I quietly tapped him on the shoulder as I walked up and down the rows and motioned for him to remove his hat, without making it a public spectacle, more than likely, Tom quietly obeyed.

What’s more, who should be our kids’ first line of defense? Who should be the number one person in their corner? Their parents. Breaking that trust and making your child a public spectacle so you can feel like you’re in control or the boss just tells your kid that she can’t trust that you’ll be there, in her corner, even if she messes up. Which is something we all do in life.

All kids need structure, rules, and discipline. It’s our jobs to raise good humans who respect others and respect themselves. They might think the world is ending if they are grounded and can’t go to the party Friday night, or lose their phones and have no access to Snapchat for a week. But then they’ll see that the world kept turning. And at the end of the day, our kids deserve to know that their transgressions will be forgiven, and that we still respect them. Otherwise, how can we expect them to respect us in return?

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