By now we’ve all seen the stories on television or online, of parents using novel and very public approaches to discipline their teens and teach them important life lessons. Often, it involves exposing a mistake or lapse in judgment in a very humiliating way. One example made national news recently when a mother in Houston discovered that her daughter had posted inappropriate pictures on Facebook. The mother’s response was to make her teen pose with a sign that read: “Since I want to post photos of me holding liquor I am obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what I should + should not post. BYE-BYE." The image of the young woman, who was clearly crying, holding the handmade sign, was broadcast nationally and is still being talked about.
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On a popular news site, where I frequently read and comment on current events, I was struck by how few comments objected to the form the punishment took, or even expressed any sense of empathy for the young girl in the photo. Most were along the lines of: “I’m glad this mother did this! Kids today need to learn about consequences!” But the most interesting and comment I read was: “Where I am from, they have a name for making your kid do that kind of thing. Parenting.”
Whoa, I thought. Is that what that is? Parenting?
Because from where I sat, it didn’t resemble any notion of parenting that I recognized. It did however strike me as mean-spirited, emotion- focused rather than solution-oriented, and harmful on a number of levels. I could only imagine what it did to this young woman’s self-esteem, to the feelings of trust she may have had in her parents as allies, and perhaps even to her other relationships if she were to become a subject of ridicule among her peers. But hey, maybe that’s just me.
Still, knowing myself to be someone who can sometimes hold fast to fixed opinions with little or no basis in fact, I decided to do a little research about shaming punishments. What I rediscovered was something that I think we have all known for quite some time. Shaming has always been a part of crime and punishment, from the Middle Ages and well into Colonial times when it was common to punish criminals by sending them to the stocks where they were not only restrained but subjected to public ridicule.
In contemporary America, shaming punishment is still with us: drunk drivers in some states are required to put special license plates on their cars notifying other drivers of their offense, shoplifters are made to take out ads in local papers telling about their theft, and men who have solicited prostitutes have their names printed in the paper. The problem is, while reasonable minds might differ on whether these are appropriate punishments for breaking the law, none of these offenses are at all similar to the predictable and developmentally appropriate occurrences of bad judgment exhibited by young people. And they certainly aren’t models for effective and supportive parenting.
Thanks to a wealth of new and emerging research on adolescent brain development, we now know that teens and young adults don’t do foolish things just to make us frustrated and angry. They do them because they are developmental works in progress. Not yet adults, and no longer infants, they are still becoming the persons they will be. And because of this, they are particularly prone to impulsive behavior, flawed judgment, and occasional acts of recklessness and yes, stupidity. We now know, for instance, that the prefrontal cortex, which governs the “executive functions” of reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control is the very last area of the human brain to mature and that the final stages of maturation conclude around the age of 25.
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As someone who was prone to more than my share of hijinks during my pre-teen and teenage years, I am keenly aware of how it might have felt to have such a punishment exacted for my various misdeeds. That time when as a fifteen-year old I snuck out to the party I was very clearly forbidden to attend--What would it have felt like, I wonder, if my father had paraded me across the dance floor with a sign bearing some humiliating message? What would I have learned from that?
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I don’t know for certain, but given my headstrong nature, I suspect I would have altered my view of him entirely. No longer an over-protective father, he would have been transformed into an untrustworthy and malevolent figure; someone who would actively seek to belittle and humiliate me, someone who I might not seek out if what I needed was empathy and understanding. And perhaps, someone who taught me that empathy and understanding were not to be valued at all. But like I said, maybe that’s just me.Tell Us:-->Do you agree or disagree with Marie's point of view? How do you discipline your teen? _______________________________________________________________________
1. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, The Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making Fact Sheet.
2. Patricia Hoolihan, Launching Your Teen into Adulthood: Parenting through the Transition, Search Institute, free sample.
3. David Walsh, Ph.D, Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, Search Institute. To purchase, click here.
4. Paul Thompson, Ph.D., “Time-Lapse Imaging Tracks Brain Maturation From Ages 5 to 20,” National Institutes of Mental Health, and the University of California Los Angeles, May 2004; also, author interview with Robin Jenkins, Ph.D., June 2006.
5. Beatrice Luna, Ph.D., “Brain and Cognitive Processes Underlying Cognitive Control of Behavior in Adolescence,” University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 2005.
6. Image via HuffingtonPost.com