Esther Calzada
Esther Calzada

Using social media to publicly shame children has sparked strong reactions after one father shamed his son with a sign at a NBA game. Some applaud the efforts of these parents for their no-nonsense approach and defend the right of all parents to take a firm stance, while others say that parents who shame their children publically are mean-spirited or abusive. In fact, one such incident apparently triggered the suicide of a teenage girl last year.

The debate about discipline — which strategies are effective and which are morally and legally acceptable — has a long history in the scientific and broader community, but one thing is clear: There are better approaches to discipline than shaming a child publically.

Positive approaches to discipline are generally more effective than negative approaches, and any approach to discipline is generally more effective when issued in the context of a strong and nurturing parent-child relationship.

When kids engage in behavior that could significantly jeopardize their future (getting suspended from school) or safety (staying out late, getting in fights, underage drinking), parents will often do whatever it takes to curtail that behavior. Some parents, fearing their children are on the wrong track, may find public shaming appealing because it represents such a bold and clear statement of disapproval. And like physical punishment, shaming may lead to immediate results, making it appear effective. Children who are shamed are often contrite and in the short-term, may even work hard to avoid making the same mistake. In the case of the father who shamed his son at the NBA game, the father later defended the stunt saying his son got the message “loud and clear.”

But it is not a long-term fix.

By making children feel like the problem rather than the specific behaviors they engaged in, shaming undermines self-esteem and self-regulation, leading to more behavior problems that are harder to discipline. At the same time, shaming erodes the trust and respect that children have for their parents, making them less responsive to their parent’s efforts to curb their misbehavior. Shaming videos could actually lead to an increase in the risk for children to experience mental health problems such as depression or delinquency.

Shaming tactics assume that misbehavior is caused solely or primarily by a lack motivation to do what is right rather than what is wrong, that if children just understood how serious their misbehavior was, they would stop doing it. In other words, shaming assumes that children who are misbehaving have the skills and the support to make better choices. But meaningful and long-lasting behavior in children requires more than just understanding what parents expect them not to do. It requires that they know what to do and how to do it, skills that are shaped through positive discipline issued in the context of a supportive relationship.

Parents should establish routines to spend time with their children, practice regular and open communication, and coach their children on the use of positive coping skills. Parents should also establish clear expectations and rules for their children’s behavior and be prepared with logical and non-harsh consequences when children do break the rules. Then, when their 14-year-old misses curfew, gets bad grades or comes home drunk, parents have a planned and thoughtful approach for handling the problem.

Another problem in the debate about shaming is our focus on whether to blame parents for shaming their children or blame children for disobeying their parents. But if we step away from finding fault and instead see parents struggling to raise respectful and well-behaved children, and children struggling to acquire the social, emotional and behavioral skills to navigate the challenges of growing up, a larger, systemic issue becomes apparent: Parents and families need more support.

It is when we, as a community, make a commitment to investing in parents and giving them strategies to cope with childhood and adolescent misbehaviors that we can expect to avoid cascading effects from tactics such as shaming that may ultimately jeopardize children’s mental health.

Esther Calzada is an associate professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin. This opinion piece was produced for Texas Perspectives and represents the views of the author, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Versions of this opinion piece appeared in the Dallas Morning News and East Bay Times.