Is Publicly Humiliating Children A Way to Teach Respect?

By Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

thiefTalesha Roberson, a mom from Spokane, Washington, recently decided to teach her 14-year-old son a lesson when he stole an iPod from a student at his school. He had stolen many things before and his mother was disgusted and frustrated. So, she had him sit in their driveway and hold up a sign that said, "I am a thief; I like to steal." 

This latest incident comes on the heals of the famous YouTube rant by North Carolina dad Tommy Jordan when he shot his 15-year-old daughter’s laptop and then posted the video on YouTube and Facebook. His actions came after his daughter Hannah posted a message on her Facebook page complaining that she was tired of picking up after her dad and that she should be paid for her chores.

I am incredulous at the overwhelmingly positive response both parents have received from parents across the country.  For example, NBC's "Today" polled viewers on the incident and reported that 74 percent agreed with Jordan's actions. I doubt that parents would be so accepting if teachers publicly humiliated their students. And how can parents expect teachers to successfully teach respect at school if they don’t teach it at home?

While both parents insist that their children have not been hurt or scarred by these public displays – and indeed, have learned from them – as a parent and an educator I am deeply troubled by this sort of parenting.

What ’s wrong with the actions of these parents?

  1. They are the parents, the adults in the situation. They both acted out of anger, frustration, and desperation, which make them very poor role models for their children. Children learn what they live. What are these children learning by being treated in this demeaning manner?

  2. They publicly humiliated their children, never a good way to start a conversation or teach a lesson.

  3. Tommy Jordan used a GUN! When his anger gets out of control again, what will stop him from shooting a person next time?

  4. Teenagers are notoriously rebellious, and often disrespectful. A parent does not teach respect by being disrespectful to his or her child. Respect is a two-way street. By embarrassing their children in front of the whole world, they cannot expect respect in return.

  5. The “when I was your age” argument does not resonate with adolescents. It’s meaningless. Anyway, there were no Facebook, YouTube, 24-hour TV iPod, or laptop when these parents were their children’s age. Having a heart-to-heart conversation is still the best way to go.

  6. They are counterproductive to school character education efforts. Parents and schools need to be partners if they want children to be respectful and understanding.

    What should these parents have done in private conversations with their children?

  • Each should have used an “I” message with the focus on understanding their children’s feelings and expressing their own. They should have said: “I have tried to be a good parent to you, and I feel deeply hurt and insulted that you would engage in this behavior, which dishonors our family. What were you thinking?”
  • They should have described how their children’s respective actions (stealing, Facebook message attacking father) upset them.
  • They then should have actively listened to what their children had to say, and then summarized, paraphrased, questioned, and brainstormed solutions with them.
  • The parents and their children might then have come to a solution that met both their needs. It’s not about right or wrong, but about understanding and respect. They might have even agreed upon appropriate consequences. And if you’re a parent, your job is to help your child learn and grow.
  • If the situation had gone too far -- which it likely did in both cases – they should have brought additional people into the discussion. Not millions of YouTube or TV viewers, but a counselor, a clergy person, or an objective and impartial relative or friend.

Posted on March 13, 2012 by Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

Dr. Meryl Ain has worked in several large New York school districts as a central office administrator, teacher, and school building administrator. She writes about education and parenting for several publications and on her blog, You can also follow her on Twitter.

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