You may have seen them: YouTube videos of a child throwing a tantrum, or a mother following her school-skipping teen around campus to enforce her class attendance; a Facebook videos of an outraged father repeatedly shooting his disrespectful daughter’s laptop, or heavily recirculated posts of crying siblings wearing “our get-along shirt.”
Public shaming has always been a powerful form of social control. But today, the internet serves as the town square, and smartphones are the stocks. Parents who do it say that shaming a child is effective, but is it? Is it ethical? And might it even earn you a visit from child welfare officials or the authorities?
Shaming vs. supporting
“Shaming,” says Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, a parent coach and certified parent educator, “goes to the core of someone’s sense of self and confidence. It leads to resentment and a lack of trust.”
Zeichner specializes in positive discipline and social/emotional development, and works with parents through classes, workshops, and individualized coaching to equip them with effective parenting skills.
“Some parents falsely believe that shame is a motivator for behavioral change, but this is a mistaken belief,” she says. She compares it to a workplace situation: Do you as an employee respond more positively to a harsh, judgmental boss, or to a more encouraging and supportive one?
Is it effective discipline?
Posting your child’s mistakes on the Internet may seem to work initially. Punishment, which involves blame, shame, and/or pain may be effective in the short term, Zeichner notes, but publicly shaming a child doesn’t help your long-term relationship with your child—or their social development.
“It’s certainly one way to break a connection, and certainly not a way of supporting or guiding your child to make better choices,” says Zeichner.
Rather than teaching the child appropriate behavior, shaming may have unintended results. Your child may become distant or rebellious and smarter at avoiding being caught.
“Social media shaming might work in the moment,” Zeichner continues, “but what about after? Parents feel an urgency in the moment of misbehavior, a need to immediately nip it in the bud, but they need to deliver those lessons in a way a child can hear them.”
“At the end of the day, when you shame a child, what are they learning? When we post media for the world to see—for humiliation—what are we teaching them? Overwhelmingly, parents say they want to raise their children to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. But when you use this form of punishment, are those the examples you’re modeling?”
Behavior and the young brain
A misbehaving or defiant child can ignite in parents a potent mix of shame, fury, and desperation. But Zeichner reminds parents that the part of a child’s brain responsible for higher-level thinking isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.
“When we respond with punishment, their brain often goes into instant fight/flight/freeze mode… the reptilian response system,” she says. “Positive discipline involves having realistic expectations of what your child is capable of developmentally.”
She explains that discipline is about guiding a child. “It’s focused on helping our kids learn for the future, while punishment is about the past. A child that sees you as a guide is a child that’s open to greater cooperation.”
Social media shaming and the law
Parents whose shaming posts have gone viral have drawn the attention of law enforcement and child welfare authorities, notably in cases where a child attempted or committed suicide as a result of the shaming or a firearm was involved. And unlike other forms of discipline, social media shaming lives on forever—even if the original post is deleted—potentially staining the futures of both parent and child.
As an LCSW, Zeichner calls such posts a huge red flag for scrutiny. “Social workers are trained to draw attention to examples of abuse, and social media shaming would constitute emotional abuse.” Parents who have been reported to a child welfare agency or other authority will need to contact a family law attorney, and should reach out to a family counselor as well.
Parents who were raised in a home with limited communication and stern punishment may find it harder to take the leap from shaming to connecting with their child over discipline and social media issues.
“But it’s particularly critical when it comes to teenagers, that huge bloc of social media users, because these are the years your kids need you more than ever,” says Zeichner. “Take an interest in their social media sites, check them out, stay involved. That way, your child will be more inclined to come to you when there is a problem.”