Shame, it seems, has become the parenting strategy of choice when all else fails.
Take the recent case of 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana who committed suicide after her father cut off her hair because she disobeyed him by using social media.
‘Was it worth it?’ her father reportedly asks while videoing her abasement.
‘No’, Izabel replies.
‘How many times did I warn you?’ he asks.
The Washington teenager uploaded the video to YouTube and then wrote several letters, telling her father that she loved him and that she ‘did not want to take the family name down with her’ before ending her own life.
Izabel Laxamana is only the most recent — and tragic — case of parenting through public humiliation.
There was the mother who made her daughter wear a ‘shame-shirt’ to school for getting bad marks and the one who made her son stand on a street corner wearing a placard saying he received a ‘…GPA 1.22 … honk if I need (an) education’.
A father who shot his daughter’s computer for posting a disrespectful message about her parents on Facebook received over 40 million hits on YouTube.
And in 2013 Bek Piscioneri from regional NSW attracted worldwide attention when she sold her daughter’s One Direction concert tickets on eBay as punishment.
‘You can thank my daughter’s self righteous and lippy attitude for their sale,’ she wrote in the eBay ad. ‘See sweety? And you thought I was bluffing.’
After the story garnered international attention Piscioneri claimed that the story about her daughter was fabricated. Apparently it was all just a ploy to sell the tickets.
That may be so, but the response to her advertisement revealed that many parents believe publicly shaming a ten year old is an excellent approach to parenting. Piscioneri received 2500 emails. Of the 400 that she read, only five were negative.
There’s no doubt that these cases are extreme and presumably the reason they make headlines is that they are also relatively rare. However, less extreme measures of parenting through shame and humiliation are not uncommon.
Over the past weeks I’ve heard parents say: ‘People are looking at you’ or ‘You’re embarrassing yourself’ or ‘What will people think?’ in an attempt to manage their child’s behaviour. Shame is even used to stop children boisterously singing or dancing in public, with children being told to stop because they look silly.
Yes, saying things like this to children is on a totally different scale from shaming your child on social media. It’s not going to go viral or live forever, just waiting to be found by a future partner or employer.
But the lesson to the child is the same. It’s effectively teaching children that what other people think of them is more important than what they think of themselves. And that acquaintances — or complete strangers — get to decide if they are worthwhile.
It also undermines one of the other core messages that we hear from parenting experts and schools at the moment — namely that children ought to be encouraged to be themselves and express their individuality.
What do we want? Children to be authentic or conform to the minute judgments of others?
Sure there is a time and a place for everything. Belting out ‘Let it Go’ at the top of your voice in a café is perhaps not a good idea. But does it really matter if your child does it walking down a street?
Perhaps we should be examining who is actually embarrassed in these situations, and consider whether or not we want to pass our own insecurities onto our children.
As parents we should be doing everything we can to minimise our children’s social anxieties, not foster them. In an era where social media is pervasive, it’s more important than ever to encourage our kids to judge themselves by their own standards and moral compasses, and not by the passing whims of others.
Parenting is hard and most people want to do the best job they can. It’s not surprising that some parents resort to shaming strategies because they’re desperate and nothing else is working. But shaming children, even in subtle forms, totally undermines our goal of raising resilient children.
How can a child develop resilience if we make them hyper aware and fearful of other people’s judgment? How can they ever feel secure if we teach them that complete strangers have the power to decide if they are good or bad?
Children also need to know that mistakes and errors in judgment do not define their character. Shame has no place is this lesson.