Did you ever read The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne? In this classic cautionary tale, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a red letter A to announce to the world that she is an adulterer. This public humiliation is a form of discipline, shaming, and an attempt to set an example for the rest of the community about expectations for behavior.
Public Shaming of Little Girl – Her Own Scarlet Letter
Sadly, this classic tale is the story that came to my mind when I saw the posting a father created, publicly shaming his 3-year-old daughter online for defecating in the shower. If you haven’t seen it, you have saved yourself the heartache that I feel when I read her father’s note that he plastered around his daughter’s tiny neck.
I pooped in the shower and daddy had to clean it up. I hereby sign this as permission to use in my yearbook senior year.
Below the declaration rests the scrawl of a 3-year-old’s signature. In news clips her face is obscured, but her tiny 3-year-old frame can’t be denied. Her father has apparently turned to public, online humiliation in his attempts to not have to clean up after his daughter any more. This raises the question:
Is humiliation an effective, healthy form of discipline?
According to researchers and psychologists, the answer is no, especially in such a public forum. Citing cases of tweens and teens who behaved inappropriately, against the rules and guidelines of their parents, and who were subsequently punished publicly, psychologists say that this type of punishment does not win in the long run. Humiliation as a form of discipline can lead to
- Damaged relationships with parents based on a loss of trust.
- Increased anxiety and depression for the child.
- Damaged self-esteem based on the humiliation.
- The same or worse behaviors. Kids who are disciplined by shaming don’t learn to do better next time. They learn to hide things from their parents (loss of trust) and that they aren’t worth doing any better (loss of self-worth).
Parents who have gone on to use public humiliation to discipline tweens and teens have faced mixed reviews. Some cheer them on, saying that it is about time someone took drastic measures to ensure that these inappropriate behaviors ended. Others say that when shaming and humiliation is the tool of choice, the outcomes are rarely positive or built on trust or healthy relationships.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is the age of this young girl. Dr. Marshall Korenblum, the chief psychiatrist from Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, says that pre-teens are especially ill-equipped to handle shaming as a form of discipline. He goes on to say that,
“…so it’s overwhelming their defenses…so, absolutely, for a pre-teen I think it is cruel and unusual punishment.”
Korenblum goes on to say that while public humiliation might work more with teens, as they are getting hit where it hurts in the social worlds that are so important to them, in the end the real lesson is that, “it’s OK to not respect somebody else.” At 3 years of age, this girl is facing consequences for a 3-year-old’s mistake that could haunt her for the rest of her life.
- Is she even old enough to read what her father wrote (much less sign it)?
- Is she even old enough to comprehend the humiliation for which her father is aiming?
- If she is 3 years old and facing this type of public shaming, what type of private shaming is she enduring?
- What purpose does this serve – what will she learn from this “lesson”?
The answers to these questions don’t seem to add up to a positive discipline choice that will teach a child to make healthy, appropriate decisions. Most of all, it won’t teach a child why to make better decisions (unless the why part is out of fear of shaming consequences). I get the frustration and understand that challenges of trying to get a young child to do better. Parenting is a challenging job, and many days end without feeling like we make much progress in molding our kids into the adults we hope they can become. It is a constant process, and we make mistakes, too. The difference is that our 3-year-olds can’t really announce our mistakes to the world via social media.
Stop Using the Internet to Discipline
It’s time to stop using the internet as a parenting tool to humiliate our kids. If another person dared to post such shaming photographs of our own young children, we would be up in arms, because we know in our heart of hearts that this will hurt more than it will help.
- We are contributing to their digital reputation – the one future classmates, teachers, employers, and family members will see.
- We are building or tearing down their self-image, and we are doing it in the most public way possible.
- We are teaching our kids how to use the internet. It can be as a tool to connect, communicate, and from which to learn, or it can be used as a public square where we hurl virtual stones.
- We are teaching our kids how to treat each other.
Is this how we really want to teach our children to treat each other? Are we turning into a society where we must fear public reprisals, our own Scarlet Letters, for each mistake we make, to be plastered online for the entire world to see? I don’t know about you, but I am thankful that I was left to meander through my childhood mistakes without the eyes of the world watching.