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. I hear many parents who contact the 1-on-1 Coaching team 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.