Facebook humiliation: The wrong kind of punishment for a child

January 24, 2012

Q. I recently opened Facebook and found that my sister had posted a picture of my nephew, her son, who was crying and holding a sign that said, “I lied to my family.”

My sister divorced her husband seven years ago, and though her son is the product of a split home, he seems to be doing better than she is.

Things haven’t been easy for my sister. I know that my nephew had stopped doing his homework, which frustrated her, and I also know that I shouldn’t judge the parenting methods of other people.

Seeing my nephew treated this way on Facebook, however, was like a slap in the face to me. I was and am still furious about it because I know that I would never have used a method like this on my own kids, let alone on my wonderful nephew.

I didn’t react well and asked my sister to take the picture down immediately, but I’m still afraid that the punishment may have harmed him indirectly, which would make it even worse.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

Or is public humiliation some kind of new fad? I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I did search online and found many YouTube videos showing kids standing on street corners holding their shame signs and found many parent blogs that touted this kind of discipline. However, I also found child psychologists who strongly oppose it and some instances when Child Protective Services questioned the practice.

What do you think? Is public humiliation a good parenting tool?

A. Public humiliation of any child at any age for any reason is unfair, unkind and unwise.

A parent can, with care, use a little shame or guilt to teach her child to be honest (or fair or kind or patient or responsible or prudent), but an angry or out-of-control parent often says or does more than she should, which makes her pronouncements and punishments feel like emotional abuse to the child.

Your sister crossed that line when she hung a sign around her son’s neck, took his picture and put it on Facebook. If a judge had subjected him to such an indignity, it would be considered a cruel and unusual punishment, but this was worse because it came from the boy’s own mother.

She is, after all, the center of her son’s universe, and the center must always hold. If it doesn’t, his trust in his mother, and in the world, will waver, and he will lose faith in himself. The more abuse he gets, the more faith he will lose. For all of these reasons, abuse of any kind is as close to a parental sin as you can get.

Your sister’s behavior didn’t give you the right to blow up at her, however. Every parent makes mistakes every day, especially when she’s having a rough time.

Give her an apology and a hug to make up for your stern reprimand and then offer to help in any way that you can. A note, a self-help book or some parenting classes may be enough to pull her out of the quagmire that she’s in because she’ll realize how much you care about her.

Mostly, though, you need to strengthen your connection with your nephew. Perhaps your sister will let him visit you on his next school break, particularly if you pick him up or send a ticket. Or maybe you can surprise him by showing up at his next game, recital or play. In any case, start e-mailing him regularly and taking a deeper interest in his life. This could erase much of the pain that he’s going through as long as you listen to his litany of complaints and concerns without passing any of his secrets along to your sister. This would erode his trust still more.

You also should tell her about Parents Anonymous (www.parentsanonymous.org), that fine, free organization that has taught so many parents how to discipline their children with respect, rather than abuse. If she won’t go to any meetings, however, and if she continues to humiliate her son, you should tell her that you’ll have to share your concerns with the counselor at your nephew’s school, his pediatrician or even with Child Protection Services, because abuse of any kind tends to escalate. If you do report your sister, continue to be gentle with her. She needs a friend right now, not a critic.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent online Q&A at washingtonpost.com/advice .

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