The toxic combination of frustrated parents and social media has led to the disturbing spread of “child-shaming” videos. In one recent example, a father films his 10-year-old son running to school in the rain while he follows behind offering commentary about the offense and the punishment. Other videos feature parents destroying cell phones, video game consoles and laptops (often with firearms) while their children scream. Some show parents going as far as offering their kids gifts only to immediately take the gifts back to the store. In each case the parental motivation is clear: cause as much pain, humiliation, and shame as possible to teach a lesson. But the ones who should feel shame are the ineffective, vindictive parents. They’re the ones who need a lesson — one in being a good parent rather than a complete asshole.
After a friend sent me a link to the video of the child running to school in the rain, I was honestly skeptical that there were enough of these videos to be considered a trend. But it takes very little effort searching on YouTube to find videos of angry parents screaming at kids before breaking their stuff. It’s tough to look away from these poor kids facing enraged parents. Their hangdog faces, wet with tears are horrifically compelling in their distress. It’s hard to hear their shaky voices or crying in response to aggressive questioning from parents. But I feel I have to witness it somehow. To watch with empathy rather than laughter.
While child-shaming videos are a modern phenomenon, they are rooted in the authoritarian parenting style defined by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s. This style is marked by parents who have unreasonably high expectations but also offer little encouragement or emotional care for their child. Authoritarian parents usually punish harshly and arbitrarily, seeking unconditional obedience.
The authoritarian style of parenting has been studied extensively over the last half-century revealing a range of crappy outcomes for children. The style is linked to adolescent rebellion and a sense of low self-esteem, which can spiral into drug abuse and heightened risk of suicide. In adulthood, children of authoritarian parents are also at an increased risk for depression.
These videos of children screaming while their phone is demolished with a hammer, or tearfully begging for a gift not to be returned, isn’t documenting some kind of radical tough love. What they’re showing is a glimpse into a child’s dark journey through authoritarian parenting. These videos are as ghoulish as watching film of car wrecks and natural disasters. The lens is capturing a life changing for the worse.
Also, and this can’t be understated, the parents in these videos are simply being cruel assholes. Driving behind your kid and talking about how terrible they are while they run in the rain is not good discipline, which requires, communication, empathy and calm consistency. It also won’t teach the kid resilience. It will, however, teach the kid that you’re an asshole. It will also, I suppose, give them some material to share with their therapist(s) later in life.
Consider the dad who filmed the terrible haircuts he gave his children as punishment for bad grades. What are those kids learning? They’re not learning the importance of resiliency and learning from mistakes. They’re not learning the value of education. They are learning that unconditional obedience is the only way to avoid shame. They aren’t learning why they should behave a certain way. They are learning why they should avoid getting caught.
Which is not to say I don’t see a bit of myself in these parents. Sometimes a kid’s bad behavior can appear so calculated and specifically duplicitous that it feels like a personal, intentional attack. And to suggest that parents don’t, or shouldn’t, feel that way would be ridiculous. But the initial, and very human, impulse after a personal attack is often to attack back. And part of being a good parent is reigning in the base, animalistic urges to fight. A good parent pauses long enough to consider that our feelings are not always built on a foundation of reality.
Kids haven’t learned how to reason. And the way to deal with people who aren’t rational is not to be irrational ourselves. A good parent must rise above anger and speak with the kid they have now, not the kid they wish they had.
Of course, the assumption of the tough love videos is that humiliation being doled out is to help a child be a better person. But that’s not what these videos are about at all. They are displays of wrath meant to make the parent feel better. They are meant as selfish parental vindication. And it’s even worse for being a cynical play to go viral. These parents are begging for their children’s shame to be shared among strangers and that’s the exact opposite of the safety that parents should be providing.
A family that lives by the ethos of an eye for an eye will eventually go blind. Families that thrive are families that lift each other up. Does that mean they can’t have boundaries and expectations? Not at all. When a family has strong values, like love, mutual respect and kindness, expectations and boundaries will be the natural extension. But importantly, a kid struggling with those boundaries and expectations will do better when parents guide and support them via the family values. You can’t force a kid to be kind by showing them cruelty.
So as I watch another parent blow a cell phone to pieces with a shotgun, I’m reminded of my own anger. I’m reminded that it’s never helpful, or productive. Anger only destroys. And maybe there’s value in these videos as examples of the ugliness of parenting with anger. Perhaps parents who haven’t made the mistakes these child shamers are making can learn a better way, for the sake of their kids future.