Friday, March 22, 2013

Scarlet Letters

I am lucky to have a perfect child who has already demonstrated at the tender age of sixteen months that he will never, ever need to be disciplined. However, some children (probably because they were vaccinated) have disobedient tendencies that need to be parented out of them. There are all sorts of disciplining techniques parents can use: timeouts, spanking, and making your child watch a tiger eat a live goat are just a few of the more time-honored classics. But what do you do when these old standbys lose their effectiveness? What do you do with an unruly teenager who is too old for timeouts and eats live goats herself? Why not try the ultimate in human motivation: public humiliation.

Perhaps you've noticed the rash of online news site articles about parents who force their children to hold signs that decry their transgressions in a very public place (perhaps you've also noticed the rash of online news site articles about anything but actual news, but I digress). This discipline strategy combines the best of Puritanical condemnation with the viral capabilities of our modern world. Now anyone with a web browser can learn how desperate your parenting efforts have become.

To be (kind of) serious though, I wonder about this strategy. How effective is shame as a motivator? Maybe it is embarrassing, even horrifying for some people, to have your mistakes displayed publicly but does it really motivate one to change? On one hand, I could see how this form of discipline would be more of a motivation to make sure you don't get caught the next time. For truly disobedient teenagers who tend to wear their rebelliousness as a badge of honor this form of punishment is almost a reward; it's another opportunity to show the world how bad they are. On the other hand, I could see the time spent holding your sin sign in public as a time to really think about what you have done. If one does not feel shame for actually committing the act, then perhaps this form of discipline will create the appropriate feeling (if they can ever get past the feeling of hatred toward their parents for forcing them to do this/vaccinating them).
I have to admit, there are aspects of this technique I really like. I like the honesty and accountability of it. It is easy to rationalize bad behavior to ourselves when nobody else knows about it. But the practicality of shame is that it works as a kind of public conscience. Even if we can trick ourselves into not feeling bad about doing something bad, society will correct us through shame.
However, as a parent, I have scruples. After working with teenagers for many years, one of my favorite characteristics to see in a teen is a disregard for what others think that enables him/her to do what is right or good. This is one of the core lessons I hope to teach my own children. I wonder, does it not send conflicting messages to our children when we tell them not to worry about what other people think and then turn around and promote that shame and exploit it to try to correct behavior?

To be honest, I don't know. And like I said, I won't have to worry about it. Because my child is perfect.


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