Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Crime and Punishment

If a parent wants to humiliate their tween or teenage child, it isn't hard to do. Buddy up to their friends. Dictate what they can or cannot wear. Chaperone a class trip. Or, worse, call their teacher to debate a grade. Actually, we embarrass our kids all the time whether we mean to or not.
But, some parents have taken the idea of "the punishment fits the crime" to new and very public places. They're using social media, specifically Facebook and YouTube, to pillory their offspring. And, while I certainly can relate to the frustration that led them to these actions (believe me, I can soooooo relate), was this really the best way to make their point?

Sorry, I don't buy it. I just don't think it's cool.

Let's start with a mom who appeared on The Today Show this morning. Denise Abbott was displeased by her daughter's behavior on Facebook. But, rather than simply take Facebook (or a laptop or a smart phone or some other means of accessing it) away, she redesigned her daughter's profile. The new version includes a photo of the thirteen-year old girl with a red "X" covering her mouth. It reads: "I do not know how to keep my ... (mouth shut). I am no longer allowed on Facebook or my phone. Please ask why, my mom says I have to answer everyone that asks."


And now, of course, the disciplined daughter is not only infamous among her Facebook friends but she's been featured on a national television program. Her crime? Being disrespectful to her mother and stirring up drama amongst her peers. If her crimes were truly as egregious as her mother apparently found them, wouldn't pulling the plug have been just as effective while allowing her some privacy?

My assessment, however, doesn't appear to be the popular one. A live online poll linked to the story asks:
Was mom right to discipline her daughter on Facebook?
[ ] Yes: Sometimes you have to get creative to get through to teens.
[ ] No: She went too far by making it so public.

Guess what? Eight out of ten respondents think the mother's post was justified. But, popular or not, I think it went too far. In fact, I think that public humiliation is never, I repeat never, an appropriate strategy.

If a child hits someone, hitting them back only teaches them that it's okay to hit. Think about it. What is the message? "You can't hit your little brother, because you're bigger than he is. But, I can hit you, because I'm bigger than you are." If a teenager behaves inappropriately on social media, is it then appropriate (or even effective) to behave inappropriately in response? It's a tangled web, to say the least.

A more disturbing example of this phenomenon was circulating a few months ago. Tommy Jordan, another parent who felt he had been disrespected on Facebook, made a very loud and very public statement when he berated his teen daughter for nearly ten minutes then shot her laptop computer nine times — AND, posted the entire thing on YouTube.

To date, his video has racked up more than 32 million hits! Frightening stuff.

What's even more frightening than his post is the number of admiring fans he instantaneously accumulated. More than 271,000 people left comments on YouTube (and no doubt there were hundreds of thousands more on Facebook). Most of them cheered him on. Also frightening.

But, you know what frightens me the most? That someone with this much rage at his teenage daughter has ... a gun.

I had a summer job while I was at college. We ran a conference bureau, using many of the school's academic spaces for meetings and housing conference participants in the school's dorms. It was extremely fun (we had master keys to the entire campus), but could also be extremely stressful. Some of our "guests" were quite demanding and, when dissatisfied, they could get downright nasty; working a front desk or managing an event, we were always in the line of fire. Our boss, a very gracious lady, told us that she would always defend our decisions in public. She might later speak with us privately, but we could count on her not to publicly humiliate us. We were very loyal to this woman, and all the years I later worked at ad agencies I always tried to manage my creative staff that way myself.

Yes, it's difficult to get through to our kids. Yes, Facebook and YouTube (and Twitter and Tumbler and all the rest of it) make it even more challenging. But, if you're trying to teach respect, I truly believe there is only one way to do it.