The Perils Of Disciplining In Public

Filed under: Opinions, Behavior: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Behavior: Big Kids

Recent video of a woman from Gaylesville, Georgia dragging her son through a Verizon store has sparked heated online debates about what constitutes appropriate punishment and the challenges of exercising discipline in public.

Melissa Catherine Smith-Means, 37, the mother caught on the store security camera, was arrested for the incident and charged with felony first-degree cruelty to a child. To date, no one is quite sure if she dragged her child because he refused to walk or if she did it with the child's consent as part of a game, as her attorney asserts.

Regardless, parents coast to coast are sounding off on the issue because no matter what side you come out on, the side of the mom, the child, the appalled store employees, or the arresting officer, parents universally relate to the age-old public discipline dilemma. We've all been there, surrounded by strangers, face to face with a naughty, stubborn child and the choice to either give in to his/her demands, or follow through with our disciplinary threat, despite the disapproving stares of onlookers.

Melissa Smith-Means has not publicly clarified the context of the video, presumably because the charges are still pending. I, for one, will reserve judgment until I hear from her directly – for a lot of reasons.

One, as a former reality-TV show participant, I know first-hand that video can be deceptive when taken out of context. Second, as an at-home mom who is on the front lines of discipline with my five kids all day long, I know that a ten-second video clip of my worst mommy moment is not an accurate portrait of who I am as a parent or the kind of loving home I work so hard to build for my children.

To be honest, I've been burned before for not taking the time to walk in another mother's shoes before judging her choice of disciplinary tactics. Readers might recall a column I once wrote about, Bertreice Dixon, a mom who punished her 12 year-old son for bullying and stealing a fellow classmate's iPod. Dixon forced her son, Montavious Lewis, to stand on a busy corner, wearing a hat with the letter "D" for "dumb" and a sandwich board stating what he had done to his classmate. He also carried a bell he was expected to ring so he could attract the attention of cars and pedestrians at the busy intersection where his mother made him stand. And attract attention he did, including a local news camera crew who captured him shuffling back and forth and looking both bored and understandably embarrassed. They even interviewed Montavious, who seemed to me to be holding back tears. I couldn't help but feel for the kid.

In my column, I acknowledged Bertreice's intentions as good, and even loving, but I rejected her choice of discipline, which I called "humiliating" and probably "unproductive". I received more than 700 comments on that column, and virtually all of them disagreed with me and more importantly, challenged me to consider the unique set of problems Bertreice faced raising her son in a gang-prone environment. After reading all the comments, I came to the conclusion that despite my sympathy for Montavious, Bertreice was, indeed, a far better judge than I of what her son would respond to and more importantly, of the dangers she was trying to protect him from. Lesson learned!

Talk to any grandparent these days and they'll tell you that today's kids lack discipline. Talk to anybody older than 35 and they'll tell you that their parents might very well have been reported for "child abuse" by today's time-out, talk-it-out approach to parenting.

It's a good thing that our culture has a greater awareness of child abuse and encourages adults to respect the dignity of children. But is our culture sending parents mixed messages? On the one hand, we decry a near epidemic lack of discipline in children that has eroded manners and self-control once taken for granted in kids a mere generation ago. From grandparents, teachers and even President Obama, there's a cry for parents to take more responsibility for their kids' behavior. On the other hand, when parents do, or rather, when we see them doing it, we are quick to judge.

Child abuse is flat out wrong, but where's the line between abuse and non-traditional forms of punishment that an individual parent deems effective?

For those interested in talking about this topic on TV, Dr. Phil is looking for you. Click here to leave him a comment. I will be appearing on an upcoming Dr. Phil episode to discuss this very controversial issue.

Rachel Campos-Duffy is the author of Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.