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You’ve probably heard about the dad in Florida who made his son stand at a busy intersection with a sign that stated that the child, who is in middle school, is failing three classes and is the “class clown.” Dad’s reasoning is that he is out of ideas for how to get his son to improve his grades, and doesn’t want his son to become a statistic.

I certainly empathize with the fear and frustration behind this action. On the Parental Support Line, I hear many parents echoing similar statements of wanting to shame their child to do better.

Let’s talk for a minute about the difference between shame and guilt.  Guilt comes from recognition that one has done something wrong, and feels remorse from that wrongdoing.  Guilt can lead to accountability, since that person is likely to feel regret and responsibility for his or her actions.  Shame is more about feelings of humiliation and worthlessness, and is likely to cause that person to withdraw in embarrassment.  The difference here is that shame does not lead to accountability—and may lead to a decrease in effective problem-solving skills.

The issue that arises with using shame as a punishment is that there is little accountability gained. The son in this story is not learning how to do better in his classes by standing at an intersection with an embarrassing sign.  He is learning that if you do poorly in school, you may be subjected to national public humiliation.  I found it interesting that the son states, “When I get back to school, I’m going to do better.”  How many times have you heard this as a parent?  “I won’t do that anymore,” “I’ll do better,” or “I’ll bring my grades up—I promise!”  This is not to say that kids don’t mean it when they say these things.  James Lehman calls this “wishful thinking,” where the child thinks things will get better just because he or she wants them to be better.  The bigger issue is, how is this change going to happen?  What is going to be different?  What is this dad going to see his son doing to know that his son is doing better?

The focus for the change should be on problem solving.  James states that “you can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings. “ It is unlikely that the son in this story will remember these feelings of shame and humiliation and somehow use that to get straight A’s for the rest of the year.  What will help him improve his grades is to think through what happened in his classes that caused him to fail three of them, and what he can do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  From the story, it sounds like he is a “class clown,” so we would also recommend coming up with specific strategies he can use to help himself focus in class, such as changing his seat or working on his note-taking skills.

If the son makes these changes and sees that he is not getting in trouble at school or failing his classes anymore, he will likely feel better and continue to improve in school over the long term.

Rebecca Wolfenden earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University in 2005. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2011 working on the Parental Support Line. Rebecca, who is also a mom, has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.


If you find any comments that are rude or inappropriate, please contact us immediately.

  • KK Says:

    Unless you have gone through a situation like this, it’s really hard to understand. In high school, my daughter wasn’t the class clown, she was the leader of the pack in her Advanced Placement English course. One day, she came home and told me that the teacher had said something offensive to her. I put on my Super Mommy Cape and rushed to my daughter’s defense. The teacher was actually glad to hear from me. She told me my daughter was the most socially normal student in the AP class and other student’s took cues from her behavior. If she acted out in fun, they acted out in fun. My lovely angel was disrupting class and the teacher was frustrated!

    Oh was I angry? You bet I was. Did I think about going to the class that afternoon and making a statement in front of my daughter’s peers to embarrass her? You bet I did. That didn’t happen though because I controlled my feelings before I let them control me. I identified what I was feeling, then expressed it to my girlfriend, then allowed my feeling to move out so clarity could move in. So what did I do you may ask? I waited until school was over and boy did we have a conversation as we sat in the school parking lot. I didn’t scream or holler. I just let it be known that her behavior was unacceptable and would never take place again if she liked living in our home.

    Were there consequences for my daughter’s behavior? Yes there were. Did the teacher ever have to call me again? No she did not. The problem in her AP English class was no more.

    We get frustrated as parents. Most of us don’t know how to handle our frustrations. When our children push us to the limits, as parents, we have to identify what we are feeling, express it to someone and then manage that feeling before we deal with our children. I can’t judge that father’s behavior because I have not parented his son. What I do know is that when we as parents know better..we do better.

  • Attorney Says:

    Absolutely not! There are SO many different ways to discipline children but I don’t believe in public humiliation! Where will you go from there honestly? My daughter is only 16 months old but I could never, ever imagine doing this to her.

  • robert Says:

    There are thousands of adults in recovery today, due to shame as a child. It may not show up right away, but shame is never a good thing. There is something more going on here, that we are not hearing. Perhaps the clown act is the need to be accepted. Shame has more than likely already been applied to this child. The family may have some issues of their own that are not being addressed. I was a class clown, It was a look at me, accept me be my friend, laughing on the outside crying and lonely on the inside. Great way of looking at life as an adult is fake it till you make it. But that shame is going to raise it’s ugly head one day and it may not be pretty. It might seem like a cure today, but that cure will haunt the child long after the school is over. Resurrection of shame is always on one’s mind.

  • kingstongirl Says:

    I would send my kid for LD and ADD testing before doing this to them. Kids who have LDs often become the ‘class clown’ as a way of diverting attention from their deficits.

    Sad to hear DAD is not seeking out good advice and is acting reactionary.

  • J Says:

    If the son keeps up his current path, twirling a sign for traffic will likely be one of the only way’s he’ll be employable.

    The father, who after being his dad for 13 years knew his son enough to dial up a creative punishment that might actually ellicit a response from the boy. This man showed leadership and firm grasp on reality when he made his son feel a fraction of the humiliation he’s headed for as an abject failure.

    By the way, he stayed with and headed home with.. that same, poor, harshly-abused boy. Now imagine a country where more parents cared to this much, we used to have one.

  • Rochesternative Says:

    I have mixed feelings.The school my kids attend uses shame to improve the kids behavior…and it is very effective because the kids know the potential consequences before said behavior occurs (kids on PERCH have to wear a white t-shirt and no one is allowed to talk to them) I wonder if the dad warned his son that this was a potential consequence…and it seems that the son must respect his dad enough to accept his punishment, he didn’t leave.

  • Lynette Says:

    I agree with this response. Shame and embarrassment also lead to accountability, they go hand in hand with guilt. When someone goes to jail because they are guilty of a crime, shame and embarrassment are also feelings that are acceptable and expected. When a child admits to a principal/teacher/parent that they are guilty of bullying or stealing, they experience shame and embarrassment. Anytime someone gets called to the mat for mis-behavior there are going to be a mix of feelings that include shame and embarrassment. Even if a person does not admit guilt, it is probably because they feel shame and embarrassment that they mis-behaved. In what context would there be guilt and consequences, without some amount of shame and embarrassment?

  • MIke M. Says:

    I agree with Lynnett. I disagree with Rebecca. The baby boomer population has produced some of the best minds and success stories this country has seen. That must reflect in some way as to the way they were raised, schooled and disciplined. Today counseling spends too much time trying to dig through all the layers of the humane pschye to decifer and understand ….why? Counseling is catering to the child to the point that they are actually empowering the kids. There are 13 million children on the streets today and deliquent. Society has taken the powwer from parents. The child pschycology today is causing more problems than not.

  • bonnie Says:

    Shame on anyone who doesn’t think of the rest of society. Aren’t we all living on the planet earth? Any way that a parent can try to get through to child with a behavior problem is a positive in my book. I remember when I was having a problem with my 12 year son stealing. He has ODD, and is inching very close everyday to CD. We have been though years of counseling, medication, behavior charts; you name it.
    I thought it an appropriate measure to have him hold a sign with the commandment “Thou shall not steal” outside the local store after all the churches were letting out of service. Not only did this make him remorseful, but he has never once tried to steal again. The ordeal of every old lady lecturing him was very embarrassing. And living in a small town on top of it; plenty of people had something to say to him!
    Those who feel that this type of punishment would harm a child are no doubt “friend parents” that don’t consider that children who can’t be considerate now, will no doubt be inconsiderate slobs in the future. Sparing a child’s embarrassments is equaled only in ignorant and apathetic parenting in every way!

  • reptilia5 Says:

    We live in a society where both parents are forced to work,sometimes working two jobs just to make ends meet and to ensure that all material comforts are met. Kids today, and for the last 30 years,at least,spend more time being “raised” people other than their parents. Kids are forced to take a backseat to the economic well being of society and we are seeing the results. Of course the parents,like other adults, want to blame everyone and everything else for their kids behavior other than blaming themselves. As John Holt said in his book “How Children Fail” “when children do well the adults pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. But when the kid fails,the finger of blame is pointed solely at the child”. This “finger of blame” needs to be taken off the chid and placed right back on the parents! Parents,YOU are the ones responsible for your child’s physical,mental,and emotional well being.It is not the job of the day care,baby sitter or the schools to “raise” your children for you. Pursuing the almighty dollar to the point of establishing neurosis in your children is the major problem in society today. Convincing yourself that the hottest video games,the coolest bicycles, or the most fashionable clothing are all your child needs as a substitute for loving,caring parents is wrong and it breeds another generation of people that follow suit with their own children. Material comforts are nice but the love and attention of caring parents beats all. Remember,animals are raised,but children are nurtured.

  • lcarmon Says:

    My son is 11 and I did the same thing for lieing and being lazy on school. Society says we can’t spank & discipline is what? gaining control of a situation. I love even thought. I don’t want my son to be lazy & think lieing is ok. This is what kind.of job he will have if he’s lazy & lies.

  • Susan C Says:

    Reptilia5 misses the point. If the parents are responsible for EVERY action of their child, then the child NEVER learns to be responsible on their own. Is it the parent’s obligation to keep track of what homework is assigned in school and to make sure that the work is completed, and completed in a satisfactory manner? I don’t think so! Similarly, in this story, the father WAS taking responsibility for the only thing he could take responsibility for–imposing a consequence on behavior that occurs at a time and place where the parent cannot physically be present. Does reptilia5 want parental involvement to include having parents go to school with their children?

    Fortunately, I have never been in the situation of that father, but I do see a benefit in the child suffering a consequence that gives negative feedback for bad behavior. Class clowns in particular often do not CARE if the teacher or the parent at home disapprove of bad behavior, because they get *immediate* POSITIVE feedback from bad behavior from folks they care a lot more about–the other students!! The power of immediate positive feedback to inculcate habits (good or bad) cannot be overstated and I do think sometimes the need for a substantial public embarrassment, demonstrating that, despite the view of the kids in his class, a whole bunch of other folks think he was wrong (not just dumb old parents) is actually reasonable.

    We wrestled with what to do with our son, who had a bad problem of not doing his homework, “forgetting” he had homework and so telling us it was done (thus earning his electronics privileges for the evening), etc. Fortunately we solved that problem (only of a month or two in duration). In this case, there was a good way to impose responsibility without shaming. We needed to help our son learn good habits of keeping track of his homework, so we send him to school at the end of the week with a sign-off sheet by his teachers that says “This week [son] is current in all his assignments: Yes/No”. Son is responsible for getting the document signed (and teachers know to expect it). If any teacher checks “no”, then he has no electronics (computer [for fun], tv, ds) until he brings home all “yes”‘s –and the next opportunity for that is a week away. Since instituting this system, he has not missed any of his available electronic time.

  • jane Says:

    Having a hard time figuring out how to deal with homework and school assignments. benefited from some of the comments…but requires lots of parental supervision time…how about absentee parenting? Does anybody have experience with boarding schools??

  • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor Says:

    To Jane: Homework and school problems can be incredibly frustrating to many parents. Sometimes, in order to hold kids accountable, parents do invest a lot of their time and energy to ensure that kids are meeting their responsibilities. We understand that this can be very exhausting and we get a lot of questions about residential placements such as boarding schools, both here on EP and on the Parental Support Line. We advise that if you are looking for long-term change in your child’s behavior, it is going to be more effective if there are changes overall in the way the household functions. Otherwise, when your child returns from boarding school, he or she is likely to fall back into old, ineffective patterns. For more information about homework and school assignments, check out the school and homework section of this website. I’m including a link to an article on residential programs that I think you might find helpful: Teenage Boot Camps, Wilderness Programs and Military Schools: Are They Effective? Good luck with you and your family as you continue to work through this.