When I was in the third grade, one of my classmates had a habit of blowing on people. One day, our teacher caught him doing this, yanked him out of line, drew a circle on the chalkboard, and made him repeatedly blow into the circle for the rest of the day.
25 years later, that image remains with me and so, too, does the look of humiliation and shame on this student's face when, hours later, he was still blowing into the circle on the chalkboard.
Sure, his punishment fit the crime. What's more, the teacher could argue it even worked: This child never blew on people again. But at what cost? Was humiliating and shaming this child in front of his peers really worth correcting what was, in actuality, a minor behavioral problem?
Today, as a youth worker, I would answer this question with an emphatic NO.
Regardless of the context in which we serve, it's our job to instill in our students dignity, not shame.
Since I believe this so strongly, whenever I see or hear of examples of shame-based discipline, my heart sinks.
Take for example, a post that appeared last week on Download Youth Ministry by Colton Harker entitled Controlling Chaotic Groups! In this post, Colton shares a “creative” form of discipline in which he nominates three students for “the worst behaved of the night” after each small group. Other students from the group then vote for the winner, who has to clean up the room.
Without a doubt, there are many things wrong with this shame-based form of discipline.
First, it encourages the very type of disruptive behavior discipline is supposed to address. So often, teens act out as a way of gaining attention. As a result, giving teens attention for negative behavior inadvertently encourages that same negative behavior in the future. In contrast, a much more productive approach to this is simply to ignore negative behavior and instead, call out and affirm positive behavior, whenever and wherever you see it.
Second, I was struck by Colton's response to a comment expressing concern over this shame-based form of discipline: “We always make sure that everyone knows it is done in fun.” Such a defense is, however, incredibly weak. Of course, students nominated for the “worst behaved of the night” award laugh in the moment. Such a shame-based system of discipline gives students no other defense but to laugh, lest they be further humiliated and shamed by the group. Who knows, however, what emotions such laughter actually masks.
Third, in Christ, we worship a God who says, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). If this is the case, then shouldn't our words and actions communicate to students that serving – in any capacity – is a privilege, not a punishment?
Fourth, when did Jesus ever use shame to disciple or even discipline his followers? Of course, he didn't, perhaps because he understood that even though shaming people may produce short-term changes in behavior it seldom, if ever, produces long-term, life change. To produce the latter, Jesus looked beneath the manifesting behaviors, asked questions, and then called out the best in people. He did this with the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and perhaps even more compelling still, with Peter. Rather than shame Peter after every idiotic thing he did, Jesus invested in him, forgave and restored him when he failed, and gave him a new identity as the rock of his church – an identity which eventually, Peter lived up to.
Last, Jesus calls his disciples and dare I say – the church – to a countercultural lifestyle. In an era in which the news frequently reports on teens who commit suicide in the wake of relentless bullying, do we as communities of faith really want to be associated with anything – like shame-based discipline - that even remotely resembles bullying?
I think not.
After all, if I still remember the shame and humiliation my classmate faced 25 years ago when he had to blow into a circle on the chalkboard for hours on end, what effect did this punishment have on him and in particular, on his identity and self-worth? What effect will being called the “worst behaved of the night” have on those in Colton's small group?
Certainly, not a good or God-honoring one.
So, let's choose another way.
Let's create dignity, not shame in our students by calling out their best rather than their worst, and in the process, lovingly reminding them of not only how we see them, but how God does too.