Parents and teachers who try to make their kids behave by subjecting them to humiliating punishments are taking the wrong approach to discipline, experts say.
Just this month, a Florida teacher was suspended for making tardy students wear a wide-brimmed dog collar dubbed the "cone of shame." And parents in Minnesota who were disappointed with their daughter's grades were arrested after they shaved the 12-year old girl's head and forced her to wear a diaper and run around outside.
While these cases are certainly extreme, experts say that any punishment that shames or embarrasses a child is not an effective way to discipline youngsters, and may cause long-term psychological damage.
"The research is pretty clear that it's never appropriate to shame a child, or to make a child feel degraded or diminished," said Andy Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan. Such punishments can lead to "all kinds of problems in the future," Grogan-Kaylor said, including increased anxiety, depression and aggression.
Malicious punishments can also damage a parent's relationship with their child, and lead to a cycle of bad behavior, experts say.
Instead, parents should use other discipline strategies, such as setting clear rules for kids and taking away privileges. Overall, parents should aim to create a supporting environment for their child.
"Positive things have a much more powerful effect on shaping behavior than any punishment," Grogan-Kaylor said.
Out-of-the norm punishments can have social repercussions for children, said Jennifer Lansford, a research professor at Duke Univesity's Center for Child and Family Policy. An odd punishment can make a child stand out, and provoke bullying, Lansford said.
In addition, children evaluate their own experiences in the context of what they see their peers experiencing, Lansford said. If children are disciplined in ways that are not condoned by society, "it can lead children to perceive they are personally rejected by their parents," Lansford said.
Humiliating punishments can also disconnect parents from their children, making kids less likely to want to behave and do what their parents say, said Katharine Kersey, a professor of early childhood education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of the upcoming book "101 Principles for Positive Guidance with Young Children" (Allyn & Bacon, August 2012).
"Each time we [embarrass children with a punishment] we pay a price, and we drive them away from us, and we lose our ability to be a role model for them," Kersey said.
"When you disconnect from a child, he no longer wants to please you, he no longer wants to be like you. You've lost your power of influence over him," Kersey said.
Children who are punished in these ways usually still commit the behavior, but do it behind their parents' backs, Kersey said.
Better ways to discipline
To properly discipline a child, experts recommend the following:
- Focus on the positive — the behaviors you want to see more of — rather than the mistakes, Kersey said. "If a child is running, instead of saying stop running, you say use your walking feet," Kersey said.
- Be proactive: establish rules you want your kids to follow, and be reasonable in your expectations, Lansford said.
- Listen to your kids: Often times, bad behavior is a mistake, Grogan-Kaylor said. Parents should listen to why their children did something, and explain why the behavior is inappropriate.
- Timeouts are appropriate for younger kids. For older kids, taking away privileges such as watching TV may be effective, Lansford said. In a classroom setting, teachers may consider rewarding kids for good behavior, Lansford said.
- Parent should model the responsible behaviors they want children to repeat, Kersey said.
Pass it on: Humiliating punishments don't work to discipline children, and may have long-term consequences.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.