Thursday, May 23, 2013

Making the Punishment Fit the Crime

Image credit: ABC News
Today is Thursday, May 23, 2013.  

A Utah man and his fiance, the soon-to-be stepmom of his daughter, had a decision to make when they heard that their fourth-grade child, Kaylee, was guilty of bullying another girl for wearing unfashionable clothes.  The stepmom explained that Kaylee would tell the girl that her clothes were "sleazy" and that she was "ugly."

The parents talked to Kaylee about the problem, but she persisted in the bullying, so the dad and stepmom devised a plan.  They took Kaylee shopping, but they didn't go to an upscale store.  Instead, they went to a local thrift store that sold used clothing.  Kaylee was told to choose the ugliest clothes she could find, and she obliged. 

What Kaylee didn't know was that she was going to be made to wear the clothes she picked out to school for the next couple of days.  The parents explained to her that she needed to understand how the girl she'd been bullying felt.  The punishment seems to have worked.

There seems to be a trend among parents these days to use public shaming techniques as punishment.  Some of these seem rather excessive, such as making a child stand out on a street corner with a sign that says, "I steal from my family,"  or having a high school student stand outside the school building with a sign that says, "I disrespect my teachers."  Punishments that focus simply on generating shame without providing a valuable lesson are inappropriate, in my opinion, and unlikely to be successful, in the long run. 

I think Kaylee's stepmom and dad did the right thing, because the focus of the punishment was not on shaming her, but on getting her to understand how her victim felt.  Also, the punishment was not really public, since it was limited to her classmates at school, and there was an opportunity for teachers and other parents to talk to their kids about the issue. This is a great example of making the punishment fit the crime, as exactly as possible.  The news story made it apparent that Kaylee's parents love her, and that they wish the best for her.  While Kaylee did not particularly enjoy the experience, it was obvious that she learned something, and she told the interviewer that she thought her parents' choice of punishment was fair.

I agree that it's not a good idea to use shame, per se, as a punishment, but there needs to be a way for kids to learn the lesson of cause and effect.  Kids need to be taught that their thoughts, words and actions have an effect, not only on themselves, but on others, and they need to know what those effects are. When we understand how our behavior affects others, we can choose our thoughts, words and actions more carefully, and we find that life will flow more smoothly for us.  :-)

You can read and watch the story on ABC News Online here.

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