Punish children by humiliating them in public?
Maybe it's because the weather has been unseasonably calm this year, but there has been a rash of examples of parents forcing their children to stand out in the open with signs declaring the ways in which the youngsters have misbehaved.
Most recently, in Illinois yesterday, Montrail White watched from his parked car while his 8-year-old daughter, Melissa, stood outside the High Mount School wearing a home-made sandwich board sign which read "I like to steal from others and lie about it!!" [Story continues below video.]
It's not a brand new approach (every year or so a desperate parent makes the news like this ) but there a rash of these incidents over the past few weeks -- and a chorus of supportive comments from other parents on the news sites that cover them -- hints at a form of discipline that is gaining traction. In a moment when so much else in life is lived out loud and in public, it would follow, in a backwards and disjointed kind of way, that the method of discipline as old as The Scarlet Letter would seem fitting in a modern age.
Which may be why in Miami earlier this month, Tarvon Young, a fifth grade student at the Richard Allen Leadership Academy stood outside that school for 90 minutes every day holding a sign that said "I was sent to school to get an education. Not to be a bully... I was not raised this way!"
Tarvon's mother might well have gotten the idea from another Miami family, specifically that of 7th grader Michael Bell, Jr. who spent much of his March spring break walking the local streets with a sign that said "Hey, I want to be a class clown is that wrong?" The flip side explained that the boy was failing civics, language arts and math, and asked passersby to honk three times if they think failing is bad.
That same month, 12-year-old Jose Gonzalez was ordered to stand on a Denver street corner by his father, Joseph, as punishment for taking $100 from a cousin's wallet. "I am a thief. I took money from a family member," his sign read.
And a few weeks earlier, 13-year-old Natia Wade held a similar sign in Memphis, saying "I steal from my family", after she swiped her mother's debit card to reactivate the cell phone that her mother had taken away.
Most of the parents say they say they were at the ends of their ropes. "He has been screwing up in school, behavior and academics and right now I am trying to send a message to him," Michael Bell Sr. told the local TV news. "Right now, this is the only thing I have left to try and reach him,"
Some, though, were trying to stop a problem before it became repetitive. "He's a good kid," Joseph Gonzalez told UPI.com. "This is the first time he's done something like this, I hope it will be the last."
All the parents made sure an adult was nearby. Gonzalez. for instance, chose the street corner he did because it was within view of the pawn shop where he worked. And all received kudos and huzzahs in the comments of the news articles reporting their choice of punishment.
"Humiliation works wonders, and can be a better form of discipline than beating your son up and leaving him a bloodied mess," a reader, Digital Dream wrote on the Miami New Times site about the Bell story.
"Extreme parenting? Yes. A Long-lasting and effective lesson? Also, yes," a reader named Anthony wrote to upi.com about the Gonzalez piece.
Those who think about discipline and motivation for a living, however, are not among those cheering. "It's not just that humiliating people, of any age, is a nasty and disrespectful way of treating them," Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, said in an interview. "It's that humiliation, like other forms of punishment, is counterproductive. "Doing to" strategies -- as opposed to those that might be described as "working with" -- can never achieve any result beyond temporary compliance, and it does so at a disturbing cost."
That cost, he says, is that the lessons learned by children are not the ones that the parent intended. What harshly disciplined kids absorb, he warns is "(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. No wonder so many adults who do terrible things were humiliated, or spanked, or otherwise punished -- often harshly -- when they were young."
In Swansea, Illinois yesterday, the authorities seemed to agree. The principal argued with Melissa White's father, then called the police to report that the man had cursed loudly and publicly in response. No arrests were made, but Montrail White was told by officers to remove the sign from his daughter and take her into school. All of this happened in view of arriving teachers and students, and the principal sent a note home to parents at the end of the school day.
"It is not safe to have a young child standing by a very busy school entrance," it read. "In addition, I will absolutely not tolerate the verbal abuse and profanities that were used this morning in the presence of parents, students and school personnel."
White told the local news website bnd.com that his only regret about the entire incident was that the "over reaction" by police and school officials is what sent the wrong message to his daughter. "Here I am trying to teach my daughter right from wrong and there isn't anything I can really do because a police officer yelled at her daddy and threatened to lock him up," he said.
If his daughter steals again, he added, "she'll be right back wearing that sign." Though next time, he said, he would make sure she was not standing on school property, so that the police can not be called.
Here are five signs children have worn as punishment: