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Do you think it’s right to punish a teen with humiliation? I do it but a lot of parents say it’s wrong.
I see a lot of people answering this question with the statement that humiliation is ineffectual. I have found the opposite to be true in my personal life. There was a time when the emotional well-being of children was secondary to pretty much everything. CPS was only called in cases of physical abuse or obvious cases of neglect. My childhood was full of the typical childhood stories including being sent out of the house to fight a kid bigger than me, being given hard labor to make up for some minor infraction at school, regular sessions with the belt, etc.
I even once had a strip of fabric stapled to the back of my pants with a sign above it which stated that it was my “tattletail” because I’d tattled on my brother one too many times. Every punishment I received certainly stuck with me and generally got my parents the desired behavioral change.
Efficacy isn’t the issue. Cost is. You’ll get the kid to do what you want in all likelihood, but the cost may be more than you want to pay in the long term.
One of the problems (not the biggest) with humiliating a teen is that it doesn’t always work, and when it fails, it often goes very, very wrong. Teens aren’t adults. Their brains don’t function like the brains of adults. They don’t abstract as well. They often don’t have the ability to shrug off criticism. Many adults don’t even have that ability. The problem with teens is that they don’t generally have the perspective to look back and realize that a moment of embarrassment is a blip in the context of their entire life.
I think our best plan as educators and parents is to start by appealing to the mind rather than just nuking a kid in front of his friends.
Years ago, I stopped a student in the hallway who was wearing a shirt which clearly violated our school dress code. All I did was tell the student that he couldn’t wear the shirt in the future. I don’t even think I made him flip it inside-out in the restroom. It wasn’t a huge deal. The t-shirt looked like this:
About a week later, he hanged himself. I don’t think it had anything to do with me. He had lots of problems. A tough home life and bad grades weren’t even the highlights in this kid’s life. Regardless, I still question whether I had a part to play in the tragedy. Now imagine if he had committed suicide after I had humiliated him in class. I considered it.
I could have pulled him into my class and asked a few girls if they were okay with him wearing the shirt. I could have made him call his parents and describe his shirt. I could have sent him to my wife’s room across the hall and had her handle it. If I’d done that, I don’t know how I’d have stopped beating myself up over it. I probably wouldn’t have stopped. This isn’t to say that I’ve never humiliated a student. I have no doubt that I’ve done it several times, often by accident.
Still, I think our best plan as educators and parents is to start by appealing to the mind rather than just nuking a kid in front of his friends. I’ve done a lot of work on this over the years. There was a time where humiliating a kid would have been my go-to. Now, I’m more likely to go for an intellectual answer. Start by having the kids come up with the reason why their behavior is the problem, then figuring out what would be appropriate.
To say that humiliation isn’t effective isn’t necessarily true. It is certainly largely effective in the short term. If you want a particular behavior to stop, that’s pretty easy to do. Simple classical conditioning. On the other hand, you’ll have a terrible relationship with the student or child in the long term. Also, when your kid doesn’t have anything good to say about you 20 years from now, you’ll have earned that dubious distinction.
The real question is … is it worth it? Isn’t humiliation the lazy way or the course of last resort?
Daniel Kaplan is a high school teacher and is dedicated to lifelong learning. He has a master’s degree in literature and a minor in education. You can read more Quora posts here: