When I was growing up, there was a form of discipline that every child I knew dreaded. It trumped being grounded, yelled at or even spanked. It was the threat of being hit by your parents in front of your peers. Long after the pain stopped stinging and bruises healed, the story of said child getting hit and dragged down a crowded school hallway would last and last – shared amid laughs, giggles and pointed fingers for weeks. The extra layer of humiliation and embarrassment made those kinds of punishments infinitely more dreadful, especially to children who value acceptance from their peers.
Parents are tapping into that fear of embarrassment with a new form of punishment: public humiliation. In the age of social media, it’s remarkably easy to punish children on a platform that exposes them to their peers, other adults and even strangers.
After author Reshonda Tate Billingsley’s daughter posted a picture of herself holding her father’s bottle of liquor along with the caption: “Wish I could drink this Vodka,” her punishment was public humiliation. The crying daughter was photographed holding 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 and should not post. Bye-Bye.” Her mother then published that picture on her Facebook page. It went viral.
Demetria Lucas claims the phenomenon is becoming increasingly popular among African-American parents on Essence.com: “Billingsley isn’t alone among African-American parents. A slideshow on the Chron news site depicts various children with brown hands holding signs announcing they were rude to their teachers, had participated in bullying, had stolen from family members and more. Some of the images had been posted on social media, while others were photographs of the children in public settings.”
While public humiliation may be effective, there are other ways to punish children without turning them into a spectacle.
Public humiliation is scarring, especially in cases when images go viral. It may stop children from repeating bad behavior, but the shame also plagues them long after they’ve learned their lesson and the family has moved on from the incident. To other adults and children who’ve witnessed the punishment, the offending child becomes that “kid who took a photo with his father’s bottle” or “the girl who snuck out at 3AM.” That label could stick for years, especially in small towns.
It’s also callous. What if adult transgressions — infidelity, poor money management, drug abuse to name a few — were plastered for everyone to see? Imagine the degradation and shame that we would feel, and how much harder it would be to better ourselves with the world watching and judging. That’s the kind of ordeal that publicly humiliated children go through at the most impressionable time in their lives. I’m sure the kids who were ridiculed in front of thousands of strangers would take a spanking over shame any day.