I’m not a parent so I may not be qualified to write about this issue, but here goes. The story is not new: a Maryland dad recently made his 12 year-old son wear a sign and walk up and down their street as punishment for not calling home on time. This story reminds me of other parents that have chosen “creative punishments” that were also made public. Think of the dad that shot his daughter’s laptop and posted it on Youtube, or the dad that was caught on film whipping his son in their backyard. We know it’s no secret that, behind closed doors, some parents take the rod to an unruly child. With film clips made easier to record because of cell phones, we now have access to such scenes via the internet. The recent stories of parents publicly humiliating their children and calling it punishment really trouble me because those memories will last well into adulthood and can lead to replacing love and trust with hate and resentment.
Kevin Burks, the Maryland dad, said his son didn’t call home to check in or ask permission to stay at a friend’s house. I imagine the Burkses must have been very worried, but not worried enough to call the police, or knock on doors, nor did the parents of the friend bother to call to inform them. Kevin Burks explained to News 4 that he puts a roof over his son’s head, clothes on his back, and food on the table, (sound familiar?) but if the boy wanted to act like an adult, he could be homeless for a day and see how hard taking care of himself actually is. The boy walked up and down their street with a sign that read: “Homeless, Won’t Listen to Parents.” The police were called, but when Burks explained the situation, he says the police commended him on his tough-love approach to parenting. (He did give his son two meals and a break, as if these would teach the boy how to survive on his own in one day.) To add insult to injury, the boy’s story and picture (and others like him) will forever remain on the web.
My mother would often say, “you’ll know how hard it is to be a parent when you have kids of your own,” or some parents even place a curse on their children, “I hope you have a child a thousand times more troublesome than you.” With the hardship of parenting in mind, the fact that some parents applaud Burks’ method or understand where he’s coming from is not surprising. I may not be a father, but I was the son of a father that exercised painful public humiliation as punishment. I grew up despising him, so much so that I thought it was natural not to like your dad, and for the longest time I didn’t understand the relevance of Father’s Day.
My father has since passed away. On the drive to the funeral home, in February 2005, I realised I was the age of my father when he’d already had three children. The stresses, fears, and money worries must have been intense for him; after all, at the same age I couldn’t imagine supporting a family (even to this day, I still can’t fathom the thought). If he were alive today, I might have the courage to say, yes, children and teens can be downright awful sometimes; yes, reasoning with young people can be trying; and when parents reach for public humiliation, grounding or taking away privileges likely haven’t worked, but surely other more private, less painful punishments can work, too. Ironically, when we kids were confronted by bullies, my parents would say,”Be the bigger man, take the high road, don’t stoop to their level.” Public humiliation seems like stooping to a level parents should be able to rise above, no?
Parents who exercise public humiliation may get what they want in the short term: submission and obedience. The long term effects may be far more damaging, however. Your children may be stripped of their natural inclination to love or trust you; your children may not turn to you for safety, protection, or counsel when the time comes; and worst of all, your children may grow up to resent rather than respect you. Go for it, hit, hurt, or humiliate your children and call it tough-love. Teach them a lesson they will never forget. What do I know? I’m not a parent. I’m just a son that was scarred by one.