Parental shaming makes headlines, but does the disciplinary approach work?

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TORONTO – When it comes to curbing persistently bad behaviour exhibited by children, is shaming the new name of the game in parental discipline?

Scott Mackintosh recently offered a very public – and buzzworthy – lesson in modesty to his teen daughter, whom he felt was continually dressing inappropriately, by turning the spotlight on himself. The Utah father donned a pair of short-shorts and a “Best Dad Ever” T-shirt for a family night out, resulting in embarrassment for his daughter, pointing and strange looks from observers and the image of Mackintosh in the getup going viral.

Meanwhile, other recent headlines have shown parents putting the misdeeds of their kids – and subsequent punishments – on public display.

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After discovering his daughter’s profanity-laced rant railing against chores on Facebook, North Carolina dad Tommy Jordan launched into a tirade of his own – one that’s netted more than 38 million views on YouTube. He responds to his daughter’s accusations, calls her lazy and concludes by pumping bullets into her laptop.

In March, NBC affiliate 9 News profiled Fort Morgan, Colo., mom Jessica Rocha and her last-ditch attempt to make her fiance’s daughter stop stealing. She sent the eight-year-old to school in a T-shirt with the handwritten message: “I steal!!! Stealing means taking property belonging to someone else without permission.” The back read: “I steal. Please watch me.”

Rocha told the station the girl stopped stealing after one day of wearing the shirt at school. She also planned to make a “bully” shirt for her nine-year-old son whom she said liked to “back-talk teachers” and “do hateful things to students.”

Fort Morgan Schools superintendent Ron Echols said while he respected Rocha’s right to do what was best for her family he wished “she would leave the school out of it,” adding that they couldn’t support something “that is demeaning to the kids.”

And earlier this month, a California mom punished her daughter for defying orders not to “twerk” at a school dance by making the 11-year-old stand at a busy intersection holding a sign informing onlookers of her actions involving the suggestive dance move.

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Brandie Weikle, editor-in-chief of Canadian Family magazine, said in observing the parental shaming trend in social media, she has found it interesting to see how polarizing the comments are in response to the actions.

“There’s plenty of people that think: ‘Way to go. That’s a parent taking a risk or being firm’ and they’re in favour of it. I guess I’m personally a little wary of that approach,” said Weikle, mother of two sons, aged six and 10.

“I would prefer more of a logical consequence, and I’m not certain that embarrassment is necessarily what logically follows from the supposed crime. I’m a bit more in favour of connecting what’s gone on to, for instance, a loss of privilege or natural consequence that has unfolded from what the child has done wrong.”

Psychotherapist and parenting educator Andrea Nair said when parents use shaming as a disciplinary tool, they may get their children to obey, but likely won’t get kids to co-operate – and it could harm their relationship in the process.

“Ridiculing and shaming hurts,” said Nair, co-founder of The Core Family Health Centre based in London, Ont.

“If a parent realizes they have hurt their child on purpose and then goes back and then does relationship repair and they think of a plan (and say): ‘I was really frustrated. Your behaviour is not appropriate, and I’m trying to find ways to make it stop, so can you help me out here? Let’s find a way for this behaviour to change, but without us both needing to be mean to each other.”‘

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In the article “Don’t Shame Children In Pursuit Of Discipline” published in April by Psychology Today, research psychologist Peggy Drexler shares the story of Lisa, whose nine-year-old son Harry continued to ignore the rules against ball playing in the house.

Despite reminding Harry each time of the rule and directing him toward another activity, he wound up throwing a baseball at the TV, leaving glass shards everywhere. Lisa “flew into a rage” and screamed: “Are you kidding me? What were you thinking?!” leading to Harry’s tearful outburst.

“It’s often difficult for parents to know how to address disappointment, especially in cases where older kids ‘really should know better,’ like in the case of Harry,” Drexler wrote.

“But it’s important to remember that while discipline is crucial during all stages of raising a child, discipline is not about getting even, inducing guilt, or even punishing – all of which are forms of shaming a child. Instead, disciplining, at any age, is about correcting and guiding him toward more appropriate behaviour.”

Drexler goes on to describe shaming – whether obvious or subtle – as “ineffective and even destructive” as a form of behaviour modification “since most kids can’t distinguish between their impulses – their actions – and their selves.” Instead of condemning the behaviour, “shaming ends up condemning the child, and making him feel bad about himself,” she added.

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Nair said it’s important for parents to foster relationship and communication skills, and to develop a plan ahead of time and – while in a calm frame of mind – informing kids of the consequences if they break the rules, like missing a curfew.

“(If) you decide ahead of time: ‘I really hope you’re not going to come late. In the event that you do, we need to know ahead of time what are the steps that are going to happen.’ And when the child helps pick their penalties, they’re usually more strict on themselves. They’ll also have a higher chance of following them.”

Nair said the more calm and reasonable adults are, the more they’ll teach their kids to follow suit. And if they’re meeting resistance – like a child refusing to get off a video game – she said parents can adopt what she described as the either-or approach.

“You can say: ‘Are you going to be able to get yourself off this video game, or am I turning off the Wi-Fi and unplugging the computer. Which is your pick?”‘ said Nair.

“They know it’s going to be turned off, and when they’re calm afterwards, you can say: ‘This is the schedule.’

“Anytime you can have a schedule or planning ahead of time so the children know when their screen time is, or they know when they have to be home and they know what the consequence is if they don’t follow this way ahead of time, it really reduces battles.”

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