Life with Gracie: Is it necessary to shame a child to fix behavior?

ABOUT THE COLUMNIST

Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.

Boy misbehaves and gets his head shaved.

Boy gets his act together and goes on with his life.

Girl acts up and gets her head shaved, too.

Girl can’t process the shame and her life ends there. Literally jumping to her death.

Two different stories, two very different reactions to the same punishment.

Before this goes any further, before another parent decides to use “public shaming” as an effective form of discipline, consider this: Every child is different. What works for one might destroy another.

I know parenting can be a tough job. Even good parents aren’t perfect.

The same can be said, of course, of our children. You know that because you were a child once. Remember?

Remember acting up in class or not showing up at all? Remember neglecting to do your home work or your chores?

Remember reading about Hester Prynne and “The Scarlett Letter” in school?

I do and I was horrified. I felt the same way recently when I read about parents allowing barbers to give misbehaving children bad haircuts as a form of punishment, then posting their photos on social media.

Prynne was led from the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, in her arms and the scarlet letter “A” on her breast. Hester, of course, was being punished for adultery. The scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, was her punishment for her sin and refusal to reveal her lover.

Had this happened today, Hester’s crime would’ve gone viral. Instead, she was led to the town scaffold and harangued by town fathers. Such were the times in 17th century Boston.

This is again proof that there's nothing new under the sun. Judges have been meting out this kind of punishment for years; making defendants, for example, wear signs declaring themselves thieves, idiots, and bullies. Parents, too. Some things, though, I wish we'd never repeat.

It's hard to know what motivated Russell Fredrick to shave his 12-year-old son's head earlier this year but when it hit the news, too many of us were amused. Some of us still are.

Almost immediately after Fredrick, co-owner of A-1 Kutz in Snellville , cut his son’s fade off for playing in class and ignoring his homework, parents began requesting similar “old man” cuts dubbed Benjamin Button specials or the George Jefferson: bald on top with a little around the sides and back.

That was in February. Since then Fredrick said he has given more than 20 boys “the cut.”

The good news: he won’t give a girl a bad cut and his son garnered his school’s most improved award at the end of the school year.

“Nobody’s talking about that,” he said before returning to his clients.

He’s right, but neither is there much talk about more conventional forms of discipline and what that might look like.

A lot of us have dropped the “A Bomb,” as Andrea Shelton of Atlanta likes to call it.

“Sometimes you’ve got to make the repercussions big and memorable,” Shelton said. “But I see little good, and the potential for much harm, in publicly humiliating a child, or anyone for that matter.”

Shelton believes that discipline has to be proportional to the infraction. So do I.

“If the child didn’t go viral with his/her infraction, then going viral with the discipline is inappropriate,” she said. “Bottom line, we try to parent with a balance of justice and mercy. I guess that’s the problem I have with the viral shaming. I don’t see the grace in it, and everyone needs a little grace.”

Amen.

"If your goal is to correct behavior, shaming is not effective," said Dr. Sherry Blake, a clinical psychologist known for her work on the Real Housewives of Atlanta. "Discipline should be about correcting behavior."

Although parents have good intentions, public humiliation just doesn’t work. It weakens both the child’s self-esteem and a parent’s power and trust in the eyes of the child.

If you’re still giddy about the prospect of public shaming as discipline, remember no one, children especially, deserves to be the poster child for bad behavior.

Hester Prynne became something of a legend in the colony of Boston and the scarlet letter made her what she became. In the end, she grew stronger and more at peace through her suffering.

But remember Tyler Clementi? The Rutgers University freshman committed suicide in 2010 after a recording of him having sex with a man was broadcast online.

Not all of us come out on the other side of public humiliation whole. Is that exposure worth the risk of destroying someone?

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