Building character, or breaking childhood?

A link to an article about the frustrated Australian mother who made her 10-year-old son appear in public wearing a sign branding him as a thief appeared in my Twitter feed today. Not long afterwards, I followed a link to this mommy blog entry, in which the author was calling out that cadre of soccer parents for whom the adjective “passionate” is an understatement. In observing these parents in the act of publicly humiliating their kids, ostensibly in the interest of making them better soccer players, she posed the question, “Is this building character or breaking childhood?” With both articles on my mind today, here is my attempt at offering a response.

As a mother, I have been on both sides. For good or ill, my parenting style has evolved to include generous helpings of both humour and sarcasm, which the kids appreciate, because they are “just kids” and not physically underdeveloped adults. I’ve also nagged, begged, cajoled, pleaded, and gone over the top in attempting to get my kids to do “the right thing,” whether that represented correcting their table manners (which come and go, despite early training and entirely dependent on who is dining with us); cleaning their rooms or doing any other kind of age-appropriate housework; or getting them to perform in their respective dance or kickboxing classes, when their mood clearly indicated they’d rather chew glass than participate. I’ve pulled my daughter out of a ballet class or two on an “off-day,” despite the assurance of her teacher that it was perfectly acceptable for my non-compliant child to stay with the rest of the class.

I wonder now whose purpose was being served: my good intentions in removing my daughter, whom I perceived as being a disruptive distraction in the class; or if I was actually trying to avoid personal embarrassment in front of the teacher and the other parents because my daughter wasn’t sitting placidly, following instructions? In a world where a mother, especially, is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, am I trying too hard to avoid judgment from other parents for my actions? What about teaching my child valuable life-lessons about the real consequences of misbehaviour in any given situation?

Amplifying the situation in our family is the (awful?) truth that both of my sons have a dual diagnosis of developmental delay with ADHD. Consistently “good” behaviour or peak performance in an extra-curricular activity is a crapshoot at the best of times. And when they don’t “conform,” I take it personally even though I have been told I shouldn’t. This, in the face of my core belief that it’s their perfect right to be treated as bright and active individuals, celebrating their uniqueness.

But back to the mother in Oz. In trying to track down her story online, I did a Google search on “‘I’m a thief’ signs” and up came an article dating back to 2007, where two adults in Attalla City, Alabama who were convicted of shoplifting were sentenced to wear “I am a thief, I stole from Wal-Mart” sandwich board signs around their necks and parade themselves in front of the Wal-Mart Supercenter store where the original crime had taken place, in lieu of jail time. Passersby commented on the “cruelty” of the punishment. The store manager, however, was hopeful that their embarrassment would be enough to dissuade others from shoplifting from his store in future.

In the case of the mother and her 10-year-old son from Townsville, a coastal town in Queensland, she – by her own admission – took the “tough love” approach to make sure that the boy did not follow in her own footsteps as a former teenaged shoplifter, claiming to have tried other behaviour modifiers, that nothing else worked.

Was this mother really building her wayward pre-teen son’s character, or was she in fact breaking his childhood?

At the end of the day, it has to come down to what we as parents feel are “reasonable” expectations for our children. Actions breed consequences. Conversely, inaction (or the lack of a truly effective disciplinary action) on the part of a parent, brings about its own consequences. Like many kids with ADHD, my sons cannot take “don’t” or “no” as a directive, but rather turn it into a call to arms. “X” behaviour must be tried. The only way they learn their lesson, if you will, is by experiencing the negative consequence for themselves. Do I let them scale my bookshelf to an relatively uncushioned fall; or do I swoop down like the helicopter parents on the soccer pitch, to save them from possible embarrassment and ultimately deprive them of the value of a lesson learned, no matter how painful it is?

I’d be interested in hearing your feedback.

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