When a mother in Australia discovered that her 10-year-old son had stolen chocolates from a corner store this month, she chose an unusual punishment: She stuck a sign on his chest and made him confess to his thievery in public. The sign read, "Do not trust me. I will steal from you as I am a THIEF."
The mother, a self-confessed former criminal, isn't the first parent to punish a child with the sandwich-board of shame – and probably won't be the last. In 2010, a California father made his fifth-grade son wear a sign at a busy intersection and apologize publicly for calling his teacher a "jackass." And this past spring, a Florida mother had her 15-year-old wear his shame (and dismal grade-point average) around his neck so passers-by could honk at him if they thought he "needs an education."
In the heat of a tense moment, parents may see humiliation as a quick fix – the modern-day equivalent of the medieval pillory. But parenting experts say that public admissions of guilt are a mistake.
Gary Walters, a father of three and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says that when parents use these harsh methods, they may be drawn to the idea of a disciplinary "nuclear option," but they are committing a form of emotional child abuse.
While it may kill the initial problem, its long-term consequences can be incredibly damaging, Mr. Walters says. He points to ample evidence from academic research that shows that when parents consistently use shaming as a punishment, these children grow up to be more depressed, anxious and less confident than children who aren't subjected to such discipline.
Those negative effects are especially profound, experts say, because young kids don't have the emotional maturity to process shame and humiliation in a healthy way.
Pre-teens, in particular, aren't equipped to cope with such punishment, "so it's overwhelming their defences," says Dr. Marshall Korenblum, a father of five and the chief psychiatrist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a mental health centre for children and families in Toronto. "So, absolutely, for a pre-teen I think it is cruel and unusual punishment."
Mr. Korenblum doesn't think shame is an effective deterrent or teaching tool for teenagers, even though they are more cognitively able to handle it. "You would say that social things matter more to teenagers – therefore you're kind of getting them where it hurts – but I would still say that the main message you're giving is that it's okay to not respect somebody else," he said.
Such disciplinary techniques can also hurt the parent-child relationship. Resentment is a common by-product of humiliation because public shame has such a "chilling" effect on a child, said Mr. Walters.
In addition to poisoning the family unit, shame begets shame, the experts say. Mr. Walters mentioned that there is nascent research looking at whether the publicly shamed boys go on to become the men who post hurtful, degrading comments and photos of exes on the Internet.
If parents are embarrassed by their misbehaving kids, they aren't necessarily thinking about child development. They are more likely thinking about the judgmental stares coming from the strangers around them – parenting culture can be disparaging, especially since children are seen as extensions of the parents, said Mr. Korenblum.
For some stressed and frustrated parents, shaming may feel like the only remaining option. At least that is the defence the mother of the 10-year-old Australian boy took when explaining her punishing tactic. The unidentified mother of three said that she had tried everything, including visits to courthouses and prison cells, chats with police and a trip to a youth detention centre, in what she felt was becoming an increasingly futile attempt to deter her son from a life of crime.
Lianne Castelino, a mother of three and co-founder of the parenting blog Where Parents Talk, says she feels for this mother. "I think there is a lot of grey area in parenting these days. It's really not as black-and-white, cut-and-dried as we'd like it to be," said Ms. Castelino.
She says she's not a proponent of shaming, but she does think today's parents have a "crisis of confidence and conscience" when it comes to discipline. Rather than trusting their instincts, people rely more on how others parent, feeding the fallacy that there is one right way for a parent to punish. Instead, Ms. Castelino thinks parents should exercise their own judgment when deciding on a punishment, and then to stick to their guns once they implement it.
The bottom line for experts is that there is an important distinction between humiliation and disapproval: It's healthy for parents to object to misbehaviour and to explain that it results in bad consequences, but humiliation is about attacking the child's self-esteem, and that is not okay, said Mr. Walters.
"I believe a punishment should fit the crime, so to speak," said Mr. Korenblum. "So if you've been rude to a teacher, the punishment would be to apologize to the teacher. If you have stolen something, then return the item and again apologize … I don't see how wearing a public sign deals with the issue."`