Public Shaming to Modify Behavior


I was a pretty good kid growing up. Sure, I had the occasional tantrum, or did something like bite my sister. But I was nothing compared to some of those monster children out there. Those kids who have to wear leashes because their parents don’t know how else to control them. Those kids that destroy things, like cars, or take markers to the wallpaper. Those kids who light things on fire, forcing their mothers to start popping Xanex. I’ve always thought that children are a reflection of their parents. Pretty cool parents = pretty awesome children. Needless to say, I have pretty cool parents.

I do remember an unintended act of public shaming, though. My mother would never do anything to try to embarrass her kid in public. However, regardless of the intent, the whole thing definitely stuck with me to this day.

In case you don’t know, shame is defined as “a painful emotion, caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.”

I don’t really remember all of the details of the story. I only really remember feeling absolutely and completely mortified. I was probably about six years old, and my mother and I were out shopping somewhere like Macy’s. I thought it would be hilarious to run off and hide in the circular clothing racks. I loved the sense of freedom and power, knowing I was spying on unsuspecting shoppers from my hidden vantage point.

And then I heard,

“Paging Elizabeth Coleman. Elizabeth Coleman, your mother is looking for you. Please report immediately to the check out.”

I wanted to die. I slowly slinked out of my hiding spot, afraid to make eye contact with anyone, my face burning red.  I was sure that every single person knew I was Elizabeth Coleman, that bad child whose mother just had to go to extremes to find her.  It didn’t even occur to me that my mom was probably scared that she had lost me, or thought I had been kidnapped or something. I was completely preoccupied with the embarrassment I felt at being publicly humiliated over the loudspeaker.

I never strayed from her side out shopping again.

Apparently kids hiding from their mothers in clothing racks is a common thing. There is even a Facebook page devoted to this. There are actually several Facebook pages devoted to this. (The latter has 63,000 “likes.”) Numerous Yahoo! parenting groups have threads devoted to this topic, and how much of a headache their toddlers were giving them for running off into the racks.

Another time, my mother and I were shopping at Beverly’s Fabrics. I might have been even younger, maybe five or so. Outside of the store was a huge display of fake flowers, the colors like a rainbow box of Crayola crayons shining in the sun. I wanted one. Bad. As we were shopping, I tried to figure out a way to get one. And then, I saw my chance! On the way out, I saw a bright pink fake rose lying on the ground next to the display. When mom wasn’t looking, I picked it up. Even though I knew I was doing something naughty, I tried to rationalize that no one cared because it was on the ground anyways.

I skipped back to the car, clutching my flower, happy as could be. When we got back to the car, my mom noticed the flower. She demanded where I had gotten it. I lied, and told her I found it in the gutter, and that someone had thrown it away.

Moms have a sixth sense for bullshit. She marched me back in to the store and made me give the flower back and apologize to one of the cashiers, in front of all the other cashiers and customers, for taking it.

Needless to say, I never stole anything again.

In high school, I played field hockey. Even though I’m not very good at team sports – I’m more of a solo dance type of gal – all of my friends were trying out, so I thought I should too. I was pretty bad at field hockey. And I hated the whole “team mentality” thing. I couldn’t wrap my head around why you would be punished for someone else’s mistake. One time, I kept messing up on a play. The coach stopped the whole scrimmage and started yelling at me.

“Coleman! What on earth are you doing? Do you see the ball? You must not see the ball! It’s about 3 inches in diameter, and orange. Why aren’t you focusing on the ball?! I want you to take this ball, and run around the track, holding it above your head and looking at it until I tell you to stop. Now get your ass off my field.”

I ran around the track, holding the field hockey ball above my head for about an hour, the entire team watching out of the corner of their eyes, before he told me to stop.

I made sure to not miss the ball while Coach was watching, and my anxiety about playing in a game rose about 200%.

My examples are clearly not as extreme as some of the other examples of public shaming that society has used through the years, and weren’t even necessarily intended as public shaming. However, public shaming is something that has been around for ages, used to enforce cultural norms. Everyone is familiar with the whole “go stand in the corner” thing, often with dunce caps, that teachers would use on students when they were bad, knowing that the rest of the class was watching them.  Historically, a form of punishment was being locked into the stocks in the public square.  And we are all familiar with Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, where Hester Prynne is made to wear the scarlet “A” on her chest.

I did a quick search of public shaming on Google. I was actually surprised at the results.

Apparently public shaming is a punishment still handed down by our legal system (despite supposedly having been outlawed by the restrictions on “cruel and unusual punishment”). There are numerous accounts of judges ordering people to wear signs outlining their wrongdoings, making perps post their names to public bulletin boards, or wearing T-shirts that say they are criminals.

Clearly, shaming has a place in our society. However, with the internet, and social media, the boundaries of what is considered “local” have completely disappeared. We live in an age where there is no local public shaming; there is only global public shaming. And everything that is on the internet is there for eternity. It has taken vigilante justice to a whole new level. Now, any seeming wrongdoing can be paraded on the internet, with an infinite amount of places that people can post public backlash.

I recently discovered On this site, owners post pics of their dogs with signs telling the world what the dogs did, like chewed the remote, or went through the garbage. Obviously, this doesn’t have same impact of real shaming, but is humorous nonetheless.

Maybe we, as a society, are attempting to move on from the whole shaming thing by transforming it into something humorous.

Or maybe we are merely trying to cope with the fact that with the internet, there are infinite and boundless ways of shaming people that you have probably never thought of.  Shaming your dog, something you master, is a way of exerting control over a chaotic world. Is that what we’ve come to, shaming your dog to put distance between you and your feelings on shame?

Hey, if it works, it works.

6 thoughts on “Public Shaming to Modify Behavior

  1. If you look at these episodes from the viewpoint of the “shamer”, they are very different. The intent of your coach was clearly to shame you. However, that was not the intent of your mother in the first two examples. In the first example, after 20 minutes of calling and searching, I was about to call the police when the sales clerk suggested that she page you. In the second example, I hoped to teach you that you should not take things out of shops without paying whether or not you thought they had been discarded. Finally, thanks for writing that I was a cool parent. Hope you still feel that way after I post thi

  2. I think your mother (and myself) are confused based on the fact that what she did in both instances had nothing to do with shaming from the perspective of the shamer. In the case of the coach it WAS his intent. You didn’t lead in with a different theme and it just makes for confusion of the person reading it.

    If you said something like starting with yuor moms stuff:

    “sometimes shame is only seen from the person being shamed, especially with children” and then went on to write what you did.

    and then transitioned to the coach thing by saying:
    “other times shaming is meant for the person doing it, and with unfounded consequences” or something like that.

    Because you moved from one to the other and both topics are completely different and in fact have almost nothing to do with one another.

    Aside from that I agree with what you said even though I don’t really get what your main point is or if you even had a main point to begin with? I’m going to guess you don’t agree with public shaming? Either do I. I have no problems with my kid feeling guilty for the things she may do wrong. But I never want my kid to feel “shame” for anything she does as a child.

    Big difference between feeling guilty and feeling shameful. For instance a narcissist (person with narcissistic personality disorder) can be described as having a few key characteristics that make them different from normal people. Probably the biggest difference between them and us (assuming we here in this chat room aren’t narcissists ?) is that they lack the ability to feel empathy. So in other words they don’t have the ability to understand how others feel about something and can’t relate.

    Or a better way to describe it is they lack the ability to feel guilt.

    HOWEVER what a narcissist can feel is SHAME. and lots of it. And they spend their entire lives trying to avoid feeling shame and will do whatever they can do no matter what the consequences are to avoid feeling that way. Luckily for them since they can’t feel guilt, the sky is the limit. The worst case scenarios are people who rape and murder others.

    But most times it’s those people who you meet who are so charming and wonderful, but when you get to know them they are liars, cheaters, thieves, the worst creatures walking the planet. They actually are most of the people in charge of corporations and working on wall street. How do you think they are able to wake up each day knowing all the unscrupulous things they have done in their life to achieve their massive unfounded wealth.

    And like you I think not ALL, but most of this stems from childhood. As does most conditions and reasons people are screwed up, any person.

    Take care-

    • My main point was that we have ingrained in us this sense of communal involvement and responsibility. While clearly the intent of the circumstances was different, the result was similar – me feeling embarrassed for something I had done, which in turn modified and changed my behavior through learning from past actions.

      I understand that “shame” has a different connotation with “guilt.”But clearly its personal for all.

      In any event, thank you for your comment! You got me to think about it in a different light, which is always good.

      Best –

  3. It doesn’t work though. I’m a clinical psychologist Ph.D graduate student in Canada doing research in this area. Your assumption goes wrong in generalizing your experiences growing up in a pro-social family and community to the experiences of those who become persistent offenders and who have exceptionally different life experiences. For them, shame is a threat to be warded off with anger and aggression. If you are interested in reading more about it, I’m in the process of publishing an academic article on the topic.

    • I’m definitely not trying to make broad sweeping statements here. Clearly many children have exceptionally different life experiences. I felt shame in doing something that the community viewed as “wrong,” instilled through my mom correcting me in public.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s