Laura Martocci Ph.D.

You Can’t Sit With Us


Shaming Your Bully-Child

Is public humiliation "tough love" or "bad parenting?"

Posted Jan 04, 2019

Even if, in the rush of holiday preparations, you missed the hoopla over Matt Cox’s response to his daughter, who was suspended from her school bus for bullying, you likely have an opinion about his actions. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the video that grabbed international headlines, Matt Cox caused his ten-year-old daughter Kirsten, who had repeatedly bullied her peers on the bus, to walk five miles to school in 2°C/36°F weather. And he drove behind her, filming her walk, narrating its purpose, then posting it to social media, where it went viral (picked up by the BBC, the Australian Press, as well as CBS, NBC, etc).

Cox, who considered his punishment a ‘life lesson,’ can be heard saying, “This lovely lady is my ten-year-old daughter who has for the second time this school year been kicked off the school bus, due to bullying another student…
Friday, when my daughter brought home her paperwork for her bus suspension, she said, ‘Daddy, you’re going to have to take me to school next week.’ As you see, this morning she is learning otherwise."

Knowing full well that his response would be controversial, Cox preemptively claimed, “A lot of you parents aren’t going to agree with this, but that is alright. Because I’m doing what I feel is right to teach my daughter a lesson and stop her from bullying.”

And in fact, it might be argued that he simply upheld the consequences the school had meted out—he reinforced her accountability for repeated name-calling (and blocking another student from getting off the bus) by refusing her transportation to school, necessitating she walk. Many parents lauded his actions, celebrating his ‘tough love’ and ‘willingness to parent,’ while experts decried his harsh response, asserting that by publicly humiliating his daughter he did more harm than good. 

Cox himself was undeterred by the judgments.

“Am I a bully for making my daughter walk to school? No. Me holding my child accountable for her own actions and giving her a punishment does not mean I am a bully. It means I am a being a parent, a father trying to teach his daughter that life has consequences for our actions and that we have to be accountable for them. I’m a dad trying to teach his daughter it's not okay to be mean to others because words and actions can have life-long effects and sometimes life-ending effects on others.” 

First, to set the record straight, Cox is not a bully. 

His actions, which some construe as less than optimal, do not meet the three criteria identified as integral to bullying. Yes, they were 1) born of a power differential, but there was no 2) intent to damage her social relationships/cause her to be rejected or excluded, nor were his actions 3) part of an ongoing pattern.

Cox disciplined his daughter in a way that hurt and humiliated her. He took an action and made a record of that action, and one or the other of these choices may have been ill-advised. But even if construed as ‘cruel and unusual,’ his once-only response, lacking the intent to cause social harm, is not bullying

Second, it is important to differentiate Kirsten’s punishment (which Cox might claim was meted out by the school) from Cox’s public documentation of Kirsten trudging to school, negotiating that punishment. It is the filming of her come-uppance, and its posting to social media, that is at the heart of the controversy that arose around this incident.

To wit: Is publicly shaming your bully child bad parenting? Are experts right in claiming this response does more harm than good? Before tackling that question, take a moment to think about the ways in which public humiliation is embedded in accepted parenting practices.   

Consider how often you have witnessed the parents of young children chide them publicly, or laugh at their behaviors rather than yell, as laughter is an alternative method of socialization. Think of the times you may have laughed at the mistake of a child, or ‘corrected’ her behaviors while tempering your rebuke with a chuckle or a humorous tone.

Laughter is often thought to be a ‘gentler’ way to let our children know that their actions fall outside accepted norms (but that by engaging in them, they have not jeopardized our love for them). We call their behavior ‘silly’—or call them ‘silly’—in an effort to head off any further actions of this ilk. Make no mistake though, this amounts to public humiliation. If you are skeptical about this, go sit in a public park for an afternoon, and observe the faces of the youngsters who are publicly reprimanded. (Then ask yourself if it is really a surprise that our children employ laughter and ridicule in the schoolyard in order to “socialize” their peers).

Pubic shaming is an age-old, cross-cultural method of social control. And parents laughing while chastising their children in the park overlaps, in crucial ways, with Cox’s public humiliation of his daughter. Both are intended to sting, to pull children up sharply and send them an unambiguous message: your behavior is not acceptable. In order to be knitted into the social fabric, you cannot do things that threaten or rupture relationship, and it is my job to clarify norms to you/help you internalize them.

Neither the bemused chuckles of guardians (known to prompt children to burst into tears) nor Cox’s public documentation of Kirsten’s long walk to school are a rejection of their children, but rather, a critique of their behavior. And public critique can be a step in the process of socialization, an urgent demand that behaviors change, so that one can be re-integrated into community.

Re-integrative shaming is, in fact, thought to strengthen the moral bond between the wrongdoer and the community. And it is a tactic that focuses on the offender’s behavior, rather than his personal characteristics. The distinction amounts to this: Re-integrative shaming (like guilt), allows for reparation. It does not rupture the connection between offender and aggrieved party, but rather holds out the hope of forgiveness and redemption.Shame itself, on the other hand, focuses on character flaws, labels an individual, and in so doing severs connections.

So the question to ask is whether the shaming is stigmatizing or re-integrative. Does it burden the offender with a life-long label, or does it allow her to repent, be exonerated, and move beyond her ‘mistake?’

Considered from this perspective, Cox’s actions might be construed as an attempt at facilitating her re-integration to school(bus) culture. He did not reject Kirsten, lessen parental ties, or laugh at her pain, but rather demonstrated ongoing connection (he followed her to ensure her safety) and even deep love of his child—wasn’t he willing to take an action that could be construed as “hurting him more than it hurt her” (on more than one level, as his actions called down the criticism of strangers. Do note, however, that Cox is hardly the first parent—or authority figure—to deliberately shame an adolescent. Consider the actions of Russel Fredrick,  Michael Yager, and Tarra Dean, not to mention the judges who have meted out a sentence of ‘sandwich-board shaming,' as it has come to be called.) 

Cox—and many parents—want children who trespass boundaries to be briefly removed from the safety of the group, and caused to reflect on their behaviors. They want to put them at arms-length, and give them a taste of severed connection. But only a taste.

Unfortunately, when the shaming of an offender is featured on social media, that ‘taste’ can last a lifetime (as the humiliation can be revisited/replayed over and over and over again). Social media jeopardizes our ability to repent and move on, to be forgiven and reintegrated into the flow and fabric of life. It keeps us tethered to our shame, in ways that even Hester Prynne’s scarlet 'A' could not.

Cox may lament that his video went viral, or that it will outlast the rainforests, but the question is, would he do it all over again (if he knew then what he knows now)?

Shaming hurts. But if used judiciously, it can function as a reaffirmation of social norms, rather than a rupturing of connection. Clearly, Cox felt Kirsten’s accountability needed to have a public face. So perhaps instead of engaging this black-and-white debate, it would be more productive to focus on ways to contain and limit public accountability, so that humiliations suffered can be instructive and re-integrative.