'Benjamin Button Haircut' for Children No Laughing Matter

Pauline Anderson

February 11, 2015

Recent stories in the media of parents using embarrassing "old man" haircuts to punish a child's bad behavior have sparked debate among child development experts about the appropriateness of this punishment.

First reported in the Washington Post, the story involved a suburban Atlanta stylist offering ugly "Benjamin Button" haircuts to badly behaved children. (The name comes from the reverse-aging character played by Brad Pitt in the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.)

The story was quickly picked up and debated online. Although some thought the anecdote was a joke, others were not amused.

For Barbara Howard, MD, a developmental behavior pediatrician in Baltimore, Maryland, dragging a child to the barber for an ugly haircut is humiliating, and repeatedly humiliating children is "the worst kind of punishment."

In this case, she said, the humiliation does not stop the day of the haircut; it continues for the next several weeks while the hair grows back in. During that time, the kid may be taunted and laughed at by his peers in the school yard and in the classroom.

Such tactics can result in children losing respect for and trust in their parent, said Dr Howard. "What you need most from parents is to trust them to keep you safe."

Shaming Is Traumatic

The public humiliation can be particularly traumatic as the child develops. "The older you are, the worse it is to be humiliated in front of peers," because your peers are the main source of your self-esteem, said Dr Howard.

What experts find particularly disturbing about this "old man" haircut story is the posting of pictures of the child sporting such a hairstyle on the Internet.

"It feels a little like cyberbullying," said Dr Weitzman. It is the kind of action that can spark worse outcomes, even suicide, said Dr Howard. "This is not a trivial matter."

Furthermore, instead of children taking responsibility for their misbehavior, they may be more likely to "hit back," said Dr Howard.

"There are various ways to hit back; one is to talk back, one is to actually hit back, one is to run away, and one is being vindictive, for example, destroying property in the household," he said.

Research shows that children who are constantly humiliated become bullies or become depressed. They are also more likely later on to use drugs, and they are more likely to humiliate their own children and to be abusive, said Dr Howard.

Effective punishment should be private, even at home, according to Dr Howard. So a parent should discipline a child away from siblings.

Carol Weitzman, MD, professor of pediatrics, Child Study Center, and director, Developmental and Behavioral Fellowship Program, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, thought the story was a joke until she delved a little deeper.

It is concerning, but the good news, said Dr Weitzman, is that this public parading of a misbehaving child sporting an ugly haircut does not appear to be a trend.

Benefit of the Doubt

Dr Weitzman wants to give parents "the benefit of the doubt." Those who try to shame their child into changing behavior really are trying to "set the kid straight," she said.

"Before we hang the parents out to dry, we should remember that people are trying in their own way to teach their kids to kind of survive and toughen up, to be ready for the future and behave better."

But public exposure and ridicule is not the way to go; what really helps children is giving them strategies and tools and working with them in a positive way, said Dr Weitzman.

"It doesn't mean we have to give a pass for undesirable behavior, but it does mean that we have to help kids learn how to find alternative behaviors and try to figure out why they behaved in this undesirable way."

What about parents who feel they have nothing else to use as a disciplinary tool? In this day and age, many are legitimately fearful that if they spank their child, they will be charged with child abuse.

"Some parents were raised with physical discipline, and now these parents are being told, which I think is the right message, that they're not supposed to do that anymore, and no one has really helped them to understand alternative strategies," said Dr Weitzman.

Poor Parenting Skills

Although much of parenting is "intuitive," it "doesn’t come with a manual," said Dr Weitzman. "A lot of times parents are stumped and don't really know the best way to work with their child when there's very oppositional behavior or aggression."

Dr Howard agreed that publicly shaming a child at the hairdresser indicates a lack of effective parenting skills.

"What we're saying to the kid when we do this is, 'I am out of ideas; I'm going to have to surrender my power as a parent to the hairdresser.' "

Parents need to learn and use positive parenting skills, starting early on, stressed Dr Howard.

"Parents have to start at a much earlier age providing effective discipline to their kids. In this way, the kids gain confidence that their parent will be fair and will explain the rationale for discipline in the first place and that they will be given the opportunity to earn back their favor and their status and their privileges in the family."

Promoting optimal behavior in children may require screening for emotional and behavioral problems in the pediatric setting, said Dr Weitzman. That, she added, might involve pediatricians regularly checking in with parents "to understand what the problems are, what they're struggling with," and reinforcing positive parenting strategies.

That is exactly what she and others at the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend in a report published in the February issue of Pediatrics and reported by Medscape Medical News.

There are ample easily accessible resources for parents in the form of books, online courses, and workshops.

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