Is Embarrassment a Disciplinary Tool?

Is it ever appropriate to purposefully embarrass a child in order to maintain control or apply discipline?

For all of the talk about how wonderful children are – and yes, they are – there’s another viewpoint and that’s one not discussed unless you’re sitting with a group of parents who are up to their elbows in raising and managing their children.  These folks, who do the toting, waiting and cajoling, are hardnosed because they see the unpleasant mess that comes with raising kids and when several parents gather, the philosophies, techniques and tactics naturally arise in conversation.  It was in such a gathering that I sat waiting for Youngest and the conversation turned to the question of embarrassing the child in front of her peers. 

One parent commented about a recent situation in which the child publicly misbehaved with a group of friends and was immediately chastised in front of the peers for a disciplinary two-fer.  Parental discipline was joined by peer embarrassment to lock down the misbehavior.  I don’t know the circumstances of the misbehavior, but the correction certainly met the criteria of handling discipline immediately and if the situation was serious in any way – such as bordering on illegality or physically dangerous – then that chastising in the moment would be entirely appropriate.  But it was in subsequent conversation that things became unclear.  Another parent commented that the presence of friends was immaterial to disciplining her kid and when others agreed, a third parent remarked that embarrassing the child publicly was a potent technique as the kid knew to stay in line when with peers.

I appreciate that last comment about the effect of a kid’s peers.  When kids are in groups – and this becomes more problematic towards and during the teen years – the group dynamic can become combustible and raucously out-of-control.  Middle-school boys are sometimes only a hairs-width away from devolving into a Lord of the Flies scenario.  With more parents either absent or failing to supervise their kids, the potential for misbehavior rises and anything that a frustrated or scared parent can do to put the brakes on errant behavior might seem to be fair play.  Both my wife and I have meted out discipline in the presence of friends but only because it had to be handled in the moment and frankly, that discipline extended to the friends as well.  If embarrassment arose, then it was purely a by-product of the situation.

To purposefully inflict embarrassment seems to be ultimately counterproductive however.  There’s a point where parents, fathers especially, become an embarrassment by sheer dint of…simply being parents, and fathers especially.  Oooohh, lookit that on his face.  He always has a few hairs that corkscrew out of his eyebrows like some demented cockroach on a meth bender.  Don’t mind him, he always breathes that way…  Given the typically lowered state of parent/child relations in the teen years, it doesn’t make much sense to further antagonise your kid and drive him further out of your sphere of influence.  Understand this:  if we’re going to raise our children to make their way in the world, then we have to allow them to use the teen years to move into it gradually with support and supervision.  This means that we have to recognize and work through all of the various other spheres that will touch upon them during this time.  There are people in this world who will happily, like Lampwick from Pinocchio, lead them astray to their own ends and without concern for their well-being and if we purposefully create ill-will, then we create an even steeper slope upon which we must walk.

As I considered the question for this article, I thought about how I’ve handled things with my own kids.  When I’ve seen something that requires immediate correction – typically involving a safety issue – then I’ve dealt with it in the moment and the chips fell where they may.  But more often than not, I’ve taken the child to the side, such as the other night.  In that instance, another kid was there and I pulled mine aside to straighten things out without fuss.  However, I also stated that if I witnessed the behavior again, then I would put both of them on the carpet and the chips would fall where they may.  The saving grace with this child is that I’ve managed to be consistent enough through the years that a follow-through was certain.  In this particular instance, the misbehavior ceased and I didn’t have to follow-through.

Embarrassment is a potent tool, lethal in it’s effect upon a child.  My choice would be to treat it as an unfortunate consequence of a necessary correction in the moment, but I wouldn’t utilize it as a sledge to hammer the kid.  Staying connected with them through the formative ‘tween and teen years is difficult enough.




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