Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Shame of Shaming: A Review of Policy Documents from Nine Leading Charter Management Organizations Reveals Support for Disciplinary Practices That Entail the Shaming of Students

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Shame of Shaming: A Review of Policy Documents from Nine Leading Charter Management Organizations Reveals Support for Disciplinary Practices That Entail the Shaming of Students

Article excerpt

The ancient practice of shaming in school--remember dunce caps?--has recently resurfaced in the press. According to the New York Times, students who owe money to the school cafeteria have been publicly humiliated: branded with a marker that says "I need lunch money," made to clean cafeteria tables while peers look on, or presented with a cold sandwich after seeing their hot meal tossed in the trash. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly half of all school districts have used some form of shaming to compel payment (though the state of New Mexico, concerned about how prevalent the practice has become, decided to outlaw it) (Taylor, 2017; Siegel, 2017; New York Times Editorial Board, 2017).

This public arousal affords a timely opportunity for deeper consideration: Just what is shaming exactly? How does it differ from similar discipline techniques, such as embarrassment and guilt? How broad and frequent is its occurrence? What are its effects, and what are its implications for educational policy and practice?

What is shaming?

Consider the experience of a child--let's call her Anabelle--who, lacking lunch money, is offered a thin, cold sandwich instead of the usual hot meal, told that this is all she'll get for lunch until her balance is paid, and asked to wear a wristband to identify herself to cafeteria workers. Most psychologists would probably argue that this amounts to shaming because it contains three critical elements: (1) public criticism that has to do with (2) a breach of accepted norms (e.g., that students should pay for their lunch) and (3) that is carried out by someone in a position of legitimate authority (Tangney, 1995; Taylor, 1985; Williams, 1993).

But still, it can be tough to pin down whether a particular incident ought to be defined as shaming. For example, what if the criticism had been private and invisible to others (e.g., a letter home, a whispered reminder to the child)? What if Anabelle had been just one of many children who refused to follow the pay-for-lunch norm, preferring to skip the school meal? What if the adult requesting payment was an outside provider who was serving special food on a single day? In those cases, would everyone agree that Anabelle might have been made self-conscious but would have been spared the humiliation of shaming?

Shaming is a complex event: It involves a shamer, the shamed, and the setting. If the shamer isn't perceived as a respected authority, or if the rule being enforced isn't seen as legitimate, then the effort to shame will fail. Thus, if a widely disliked teacher calls out a student for misbehavior, it may not be felt as a shaming experience at all. And if students tend to scoff at the idea that they should pay for hot lunch--preferring to eat a free cold sandwich --then Anabelle probably won't feel shame when the cafeteria workers demand that she pay what she owes them. In sum, for shaming to occur, people must be observed disapprovingly by others whose values they share, and they must believe that they deserve the criticism.

Shaming, embarrassment, and guilt

When shaming does occur, it can be a very powerful experience, entailing "a painful negative scrutiny of the self--a feeling that 'I am unworthy, incompetent, or bad,' " explains psychologist June Price Tangney (1995, p. 117). "Those in the midst of a shame experience often report a sense of shrinking of 'being small'--of feeling diminished in some significant way. They feel, for the moment, worthless and powerless. And they feel exposed," desiring to wilt or become invisible (Taylor, 1985; Williams, 1993). The shamed child is unlikely to reflect on whether and why her behavior was wrong; more likely, she will conclude, "I must have done wrong because you think I did." The adult's judgment overwhelms whatever proclivities she might have for independent assessment of the situation.

By contrast, when children experience embarrassment, they do not incorporate the judgment of others into a broad, devastating critique of the self; embarrassment is situation specific. …

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