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Moms Talk: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

Is humiliating your child ever the right thing to do?

Well, another kid has been sentenced by a parent to walk on a public street wearing a sandwich board. This time the kid is 13-year-old Brandon Mathison, from South Carolina. His mother’s handmade yellow sign says, “Smoked Pot, got caught. Don't I look cool? Not."

He may be embarrassed about his punishment, but what he is not is alone. Indiana. Alabama. Maryland. Florida. California. Parents all over are echoing this punishment style, to the shock of their children, the outrage of many parenting professionals, and the approval of many other parents.

I doubt there will be much applause in Edmonds and Puget Sound.

Alfie Cohen is very popular around here, and he’s one of the most outspoken parenting professionals against this form of punishment. He says that humiliation based punishments are “counterproductive.”

They may get immediate results, but he thinks that the lasting lessons aren’t the ones parents meant to teach.

Instead, here is what he says the humiliated kid learns. “(1) My parent isn't a caring ally whom I can trust but an enforcer I should try to avoid, (2) when you have a problem with what someone else has done, you should just use power to make the other person do what you want, and (3) the reason not to steal (or lie or hurt people) isn't because of how it affects others but because of the consequence you, yourself, will face if you're caught.”

Well, I may not be applauding the sandwich boards, but I cheered a very similar story in May when author ReShonda Tate Billingsley made her daughter post a picture on Facebook. ReShonda’s 13-year-old daughter had posted pictures of herself drinking alcohol at a party with friends. This mother’s handwritten sign?

"Since I want to post photos of me holding liquor I am obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what I should + should not post. BYE-BYE."

I could argue that this punishment is more appropriate since the child is not shamed in front of strangers, but only in front of the very people that she was trying to impress with the original pictures. But I don’t think Alfie Cohen has a problem with the audience. He has a problem with the whole intent. 

And that is where I disagree.

Would I ever use this kind of punishment with my daughter? I honestly don’t know. I don’t have a teenager yet, and I’m not at the end of my rope from trying other things. My goal is to figure out where I stand while I still have plenty of rope. But I can tell you my responses to Mr. Cohen’s arguments.

1)  I intend to be both ally and enforcer to my child. That is my view of my job.  I use both carrots and sticks in my parenting, and if I prefer to give carrots, that does not mean that the stick is not an option. (Not literally. I don’t use physical force with my daughter, but I do use punishment when I feel it’s appropriate, and Mr. Cohen seems to view them as equally harmful.)

2)  Using power to shape behavior is a description of most of our society. I understand that’s part of his point, that our society punishes too much and understands too little. However, when a woman running late to pick up her kid from school hit our car, I totally understood her. I empathized completely. And then I used the full force and power of my insurance company to make her do what I wanted, which was pay for my damages. 

I feel no guiltier for that than for the various ways, coercive and otherwise, that I have trained, cajoled, and explained my daughter into doing what I want her to do. She is now a kind, polite, and pleasant child whom adults enjoy being around. Again, that feels like parenting to me.

3)  There is no dichotomy between empathy and consequence for me. The reason to do or not do things is both the other person and the external result.  You don’t steal because it’s harmful to the business owner, but also because the police will respond if you do. And the assumption that the parent hasn’t tried to teach one when they call in the other is insulting.

I teach my child the consequences of the world. If you act this way, this will probably happen. People won’t like you. The milk will fall over. Police will get involved. You won’t be able to find anything in that room. 

I try to do it as gently as I can. Sometimes, kids don’t listen. 

We talk about multiple learning styles in school. We know that some kids learn better from listening or doing than from reading or repeating. But when we read a story like this, we don’t think that maybe some kids learn better from shame than from gentleness. And that shame is much more gentle than a belt.

I don’t know how I feel for sure. Some of these signs seem like huge overreactions to me. And I have a pretty easy kid. Our punishments have been loss of privileges, not sitting on the road with signs. But I try not to judge other parents when I don’t know the full situation.

I don’t know what I’ll choose to do when I’m out of rope. I hope I’m this creative. I hope my child learns, and is not scarred. And I believe that’s what all these sandwich-board parents hope, too.

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