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Are You Guilty of Humiliation Parenting?

Do you practice humiliation parenting without realizing it?

My previous post, Spanking Goes Viral, discussed a very troubling YouTube video of a stepfather spanking his 10-year-old stepson. One can’t help but wonder how ashamed and embarrassed this boy feels knowing that the entire Internet witnessed what it now his very public humiliation. 

Public displays of punishment in which parents shame a child to teach a lesson is, in the extreme, akin to a long gone practice of teachers putting a student in the corner with a dunce cap. Whatever the offense, recently parents have been taking drastic measures to teach their children a lesson for unacceptable behavior: 

  • A fifth grader in Miami Gardens, Fla., was suspended when teachers discovered he planned to bully a fellow student; his mother had him stand outside his elementary school gates holding a sign that read, “I was sent to school to get an education, not to be a BULLY…I was not raised THIS WAY!!!!!”  
  • Similarly, Natia Wade, a 13-year-old girl in Memphis, Tenn., was forced to stand with a sign at a bustling intersection after stealing her mother’s debit card. Her sign read: “I steal from my family.”
  • In Denver, 12-year-old Jose Gonzalez stole $100 from his cousin. His father had him hold a sign the lettering said, “I am a thief. I took money from a family member. Don’t give me money.”  His father believes, “It’s a great punishment. If more parents did this more often, kids wouldn’t be acting up all the time.”

Embarrassing? Yes. Constructive? 

These parents purposely humiliated their child on the theory that they won’t do it again. In reality they opted for a short-term solution that will probably be ineffective in the long term. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller explains in her manifesto, Every Smack is a Humiliation, that humiliation be it physical or emotional leaves lasting marks. She wrote: “Few insights gained in the last 20 years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small, good things and bad things, will later form a part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children act punitively, children lied to become liars themselves.”  And by extension, humiliated children will humiliate. 

Echoing Miller, author Alfie Kohn writes in his book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, “Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.”  

I don’t question that parents who make their children stand in very visible areas with signs around their necks believe that humiliation parenting works. It is easier and quicker than the nurturing Kohn recommends, modeling appropriate behavior yourself, or taking the time to listen to your child so as a parent you can offer less public ways to help them understand what is unacceptable in their behavior.

Do you humiliate without realizing it? 

One of the most shocking public humiliations in recent months centers on Vogue magazine writer Dara-Lynn Weiss, who detailed an account of her 7-year-old daughter Bea’s struggle with obesity. After Bea’s doctor told Weiss that the girl was obese, Weiss launched a crusade to enforce her daughter’s diet that included berating her daughter in front of others about being hungry and denying her food even if Bea complained. Unlike the other parents I’ve discussed above, Weiss didn’t make her daughter hold up a sign in public. Rather, she delved into her daughter’s weight issues in a Vogue magazine article featured on its cover—"Kitchen Controversy: A Mom Fights Child Obesity At Home.".  

Weiss has created a potentially damaging relationship between her daughter and food by putting her in the spotlight of a national magazine. Weiss may have created hurtful distance between herself and her daughter. Or, she may have damaged her child’s self esteem and self-respect.  What is equally troubling is Weiss’ confidence that, rather than protect her daughter’s privacy, she did the right thing. 

Perhaps you humiliate your child in less severe ways: reprimand your child when he is with his friends, tell your child she can’t have ice cream as her friends or cousins are ordering theirs, or announce to your child with a salesperson in earshot that an outfit is not a good choice because “you are bit overweight for that one. Let’s try another.” In front of others, you may ask your son or daughter why she missed the ball in an important playoff game or forgot her lines in a play. All subtle undermining of behaviors or missteps a parent doesn’t like, but they are nonetheless humiliating. 


Amon, Joe. "Unusual Punishment for 12-year-old Jose Gonzalez." The Denver Post. 27 Mar. 2012.

Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York, NY: Atria, 2005. 

Miller, Alice. "Every Smack Is a Humiliation."

Daily Mail Reporter. “Thieving teen forced to hold ‘I steal from my family’ sign at busy intersection.” The Daily Mail Online. 14 Feb. 2012.

Anonymous. “Suspended Student Holds Sign Outside School.” WSVN-TV. 6 April 2012. <>

 Copyright @ 2012 Susan Newman, Ph.D.

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