I have never met a perfect parent, have you?
I’m going to answer that for you: No, you haven’t.
Raising kids to be civilized human beings with some modicum of respect and dignity is not easy work. That is why there are so many parenting websites, books, seminars, podcasts. Parents like to compare notes to figure out what works. When it comes to disciplining children, there are a million ways to sundown to teach a kid to rein in their impulsive behavior. For most parents, this involves a combination of open communication, age-appropriate consequences, and staying consistent with rules and positive reinforcement.
But for others? Discipline takes the form of publicly shaming and humiliating their kids.
It’s become even more of a phenomenon with the rise of social media and the ability to amplify our anger and frustration with our kids by posting images of them in degrading positions (getting their head shaved, wearing a sign on a busy street, etc.) that guarantee reactions from their family, community, and peers.
You know what that is called? Child abuse. This shit has got to stop.
I’m not talking about when a mother gives her kids the hard stare when they are acting like little tyrants at the park, or even when a parent yells out of frustration. Those are simple truths of parenting, not abuse. I’m talking about intentionally making your child feel like a piece of shit because they did something as ordinary as sass-talk you or tell a lie or steal $20. These kinds of offenses will not end the world, and they certainly don’t guarantee a life of delinquency, but the overreactions by the parents just might. At minimum, these punishments are enough to crush a child’s self-esteem and decimate their trust in the people who should love them the most. It is at this point that I have a serious problem.
For example, there is the famous meme of the “Our Get Along Shirt” that has been seen countless times, in which two visibly upset kids are shown being forced to wear this oversized shirt together, the idea being that they are in such close proximity that they must figure out how to get along before they are allowed out of the contraption. The added humiliation of having their images plastered on the internet was, I’m sure, the real punishment.
That is certainly not the worst of it. There are images of kids being forced to stand on street corners holding signs that read “I’m a liar,” or “I stole from my parents,” or any other variety of “confession” meant to seriously humiliate the child. These signs are meant to garner honks, stares, and jeers from the general public, adults, and peers alike. And of course, because standing outside literally advertising your mistake to the general public for judgment is not enough, parents also snap photos of this bullshit and post them on the internet hoping to get some pats on the back for their “good parenting” because “kids these days.”
The worst so far, that I have seen, is a video floating around Facebook which is being celebrated by some as “old-school” parenting in all its glory. In the video, a child’s head has been shaved against his will to resemble an old man. Insultingly, the haircut is actually called ‘The Benjamin Button Special” and is specifically reserved for parents at their wits’ end and ready to dole out long-term humiliation as a form of punishment for their child’s mistake or poor judgement. Parents seriously think they are teaching their kids a life lesson that will lead to them being well-adjusted adults.
Let’s get something straight, humiliation does not teach kids anything valuable. Humiliation only serves to teach a person that they do not matter. That when they make a mistake or fall short in some way, they will be put on display for public consumption and criticism. That they will be cut down, devalued. What parent would want their child to feel like a lowly piece of garbage over a typical childhood infraction? Not only that, what parent would seek out this treatment for their child?
Kids are impulsive by design. They come into the world that way, and it takes years of parenting with compassion and age-appropriate guidance to help a child understand where the boundaries of decency end and unacceptable behaviors begin.
Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, was quoted in a Huffington Post article as noting that the results of humiliation as punishment are not that the child learns to behave the way the parent wants, but rather that a child will learn that “my parent isn’t a caring ally whom I can trust but an enforcer I should try to avoid.” He goes on to point out that “when you have a problem with what someone else has done, you should just use power to make the other person do what you want, and the reason not to steal (or lie or hurt people) isn’t because of how it affects others but because of the consequence you, yourself, will face if you’re caught.”
The takeaway here is that parents who choose to humiliate their kids as a form of punishment are really setting up their kids for potentially dangerous behavior patterns as they get older. Furthermore, humiliation doesn’t teach children to respect their parents, but rather to fear and avoid them. As a mother, I cannot imagine my child wanting to avoid me — every part of my being strives for my kids to seek me out for counsel, love, safety, and reassurance. I will be the last person to seek out ways to harm that sacred bond.
If you are someone who has participated in this process, from partaking in publicly shaming your own children or simply encouraging the actions of someone who has by promoting their behavior on social media, I would implore you to reconsider. Stop. Please, stop. Not for me, but for your kids. They deserve better.