Education and Humiliation Don’t Mix

I was reading this unbelievable story reported by the Associated Press of a mother who made her 15 year old son stand on a street corner for 4 hours wearing a sign that said “GPA 1.22:  honk if I need an education.”  The brief AP article offered sketchy details about the context, other than the mother, Ronda Holder, along with the boy’s father, seem to have been at their wits’ end to try to help their son pull up his grade point.  It’s not clear what kind of support they provided the son beyond an offer to help him study, but it does appear they adopted a fairly strict approach including various punishments including grounding and taking away his cellphone.

Having raised two children, one of whom is still a teenager, I know how frustrating parenting can be.  And as a former teenager myself, I know how well-meaning parents can make a situation worse.  And in my view, humiliating your child or threatening to do so, will not produce the desired behavior, in this case, better grades.

We only have one side of the story, the mother”s, and due to the boy’s age, we are not likely to hear from him publicly.  We don’t know anything about the boy’s social situation, whether he is popular in school, involved in clubs, or whether he has any close friends.  Nor do we know of his interests, his skills, his aptitude, or anything about his family life other than the parents are concerned about his grades.  Given the lack of details, it is probably unfair to blame either party.  However, no matter the situation, I think the mother, (who I believe really cares about her son), in an clear act of desperation, went too far.

If I were the boy’s parent, the first thing I would do is contact all of his teachers.  I’d ask them what they recommend he do to improve his grade and also ask how I could best support him.  If there were any hint of behavioral problems or learning differences, I’d request an evaluation by the counseling staff at the school that could lead to an Individual Education Plan (IEP).  Secondly, I’d monitor him a little more closely.  I’d spend more time talking to him in general about his  daily life to get a sense of his psychological state.  If I felt something was terribly wrong, or if he seemed strangely detached or agitated, I’d arrange for counseling.  Maybe he simply needs more attention at home or someone to talk who won’t sound judgmental. I’d back off a little bit and not bark so many orders.  Instead of constantly critiquing his performance at school, I’d give praise every now and then for doing homework, or bringing up a grade, even something small like cleaning his room.  In fairness, I’m not suggesting the parents haven’t tried any of this, maybe they have; we simply do not know.

At the risk of sounding preachy, all you parents out there be sure to tell your kids you love them.  They need to know that and just saying it once is not enough.  Kids and teenagers need to know that mom and pop love them unconditionally, and believe in them.  And also, parents, you are not alone.  There are millions of parents out there.  If you think you’ve come to your wits’ end, look for support – there may be a parent support group in your community, and family counseling could help too.

2 Responses

  1. As a former teacher I both agree and disagree with your take on this issue. Yes some parents don’t fully complete the circle of requirements of talking to teachers, seeking tutoring/counseling, finding out what is at the root of the child’s struggles. However, plain and simple some kids are simply lazy. I have known some of the brightest students to struggle academically not because they struggled with the material, but because they did not care enough or did not see school as important in contrast to their social lives. I agree that the measures taken were a bit extreme, but SOMETIMES public humiliation is a tool that works to motivate students. I would not generally advocate it as a tool, but I would hope that in this case the parents know their child well enough and have already exhausted other available resources. Just my 2c

  2. I would agree with you that some kids are lazy and don’t yet understand the impact of their academic performance on their future lives. We don’t really know enough about this case to know what is going on with the family and the boy, and what additional steps if any they had taken to get the boy some help. However, I disagree that public humiliation works; it might even be psychologically damaging and rather than fix the problem, make it worse. In most cases like this, I would argue that parents should take a deep breath before resorting to extreme punishment and instead look for family counseling.

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