Humiliation: Punishment or Persecution?

A dad shoots his daughter's laptop on YouTube because she posted nasty comments about him. A mom takes charge of her daughter's Facebook account, tells her friends that she has been silenced and demands she tell them why if they ask. A grandmother makes her grandson stand at a busy intersection near their home with a sign that says he always disobeys her. A judge orders a man who stole money to walk the streets of his town every weekend for six years wearing a sign that tells the world he's a thief. Is humiliation really the one size fits all solution to correcting bad or unacceptable behavior?

Parents and judges have discovered humiliation as a form of punishment and correction. Some of those that make use of this method argue that they are left with few choices. In the wake of years of an 'out with the old and in with the new' movement against traditional punishments that many feel do not work or are too damaging in the long run, those who have the responsibility to correct bad or irresponsible behavior in others are resorting to what they say are new and creative techniques like outright humiliation.

First of all, humiliation punishment is not anything new. There was a time when public and private school students who did not perform up to the teacher's expectations had to wear a 'dunce cap' in class. The cap looked a bit like a traffic cone or cardinal's headdress and the word 'dunce' meant someone who was incapable of learning. The term was also once a degrading slang word for someone who was 'slow witted' or mentally handicapped. The dunce cap practice went out of style in the early part of the twentieth century.

Another popular form of humiliation punishment was having people suspected of deviant behavior or convicted of minor crimes placed in public stocks. These were typically pieces of wood that somewhat resembled yokes used on oxen with cut outs designed to immobilize the head and hands of the malefactor locked into them. The stocks were placed in public markets or at the center of town, wherever the maximum number of people could see them. The use of stocks began in medieval times, were popular as a punishment in Europe and colonial America until the middle to late 1800s, and may still be in use in some parts of Latin America today.

While there is little doubt that the dunce cap made under-performing students think twice before failing a test or that the use of stocks kept Peeping Toms from peeping, these humiliation punishments also did a lot of unintended damage to innocent victims. Imagine using the dunce cap on someone just because they had a learning disability or placing a mentally disabled person into the public stocks because they might exhibit unusual behavior. These are examples of the down sides to obsolete forms of humiliation punishment that may have some applications to their modern counterparts.

There are many countries around the world where businesses use humiliation as a means of increasing employee productivity. In some places factory workers are made to wear embarrassing signs or oddly colored clothing to identify them as people who are not performing up to the standards of their fellow laborers. Poison pen memos and negative employee assessments sometimes replace those kinds of treatments in many western nations, but may be no less embarrassing or hurtful. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why workplace violence has become such a common occurrence.

I have no problem with humiliation as a means of humane punishment as long as it is not taken to extremes. In fact, it may be a partial solution to filling already dangerously over-crowded jails with people convicted of minor offenses. If it is being used as a means of embarrassing a child for something they said or wrote about a parent, I believe there are much better ways of dealing with those situations and that the use of humiliation in those cases is just the lazy parent's answer to dealing with conflicts they are unwilling to properly resolve.

There is a thin line between humiliation and bullying. When a parent does something to humiliate their child for disagreeing with them, they are essentially bullying them. It is part of a child's normal development to begin to question the wisdom of their parents, especially in the teen years. This is all part of the mental process that encourages a child to think for themselves and prepares them for the time when they will be on their own and have to make their own decisions and choices.

Parents have to use their own judgment when it comes to deciding when a child steps over the line in challenging them. Teens will always test the waters and see how far they can go before a parent yanks on the leash, but that doesn't mean that a parent should respond in kind with some outrageous act designed to embarrass their child. While humiliation may be a temporary fix to a conflict between a child and their parents, it is more likely to ramp up the situation than fix it in the long run. If the relationship between parents and their children is already a delicate balancing act, humiliation can push kids over the edge with sometimes tragic results.

Humiliation never gets to the root of the problem and should always be a last resort. if used at all, in parent and child relationships. Communication, conversation and explanation are better tools. Tell your child or teen what you expect from them and do not take 'No' for an answer. If they break the rules, find a punishment consummate with their infraction and act immediately. If your kids are using social networking in a manner that you find unacceptable, cut them off from it. It's dangerous to humiliate a child because, as we have learned from bullying, they might respond in a self-destructive manner like suicide and no one can take that back.

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