Shame on You

This week there was a story in the news about a school where the head teacher wrote a letter to parents, politely asking them to stop dropping off their children in the mornings while still wearing their pyjamas. Only a week or so earlier, another head teacher had written a similar letter, asking parents to make sure that their children had a shower and wore clean clothes to school. On the face of it, these seemed like perfectly reasonable requests, dressed up in very polite language. In our house, the kids have regular showers – it’s not a difficult thing to do. I just put the hot water on and shout up the stairs at them to “get in the shower!”. And you certainly wouldn’t catch me turning up at school in my PJs, mainly because I’d be too embarrassed, but also because the school is a mile’s walk away along muddy country lanes. If I overslept, I might throw a coat over my tracksuits and take the kid in by car, so she could jump out without anyone spotting my inappropriately slovenly attire. But this would definitely be a one-off event, not a regular occurrence.

One of my most vivid memories of infant school is of the day that a child wet himself in our classroom. When the teacher discovered the pool of urine beneath his seat, she made him stand up on the table in front of the class and she publicly shamed him. They used a similar ‘shaming’ technique at the middle school that I attended, at the end of each year, to ensure that we knew our place in the grand scheme of things. When the exam results came out, we would be given a ranking order within the class, from 1 to 33. Our ranking number was called out, and we would each have to stand up, in turn, in front of the class. I was lucky because my ranking was usually in the top three, so I got a hearty round of applause from my peers. Life wasn’t so sweet, I would imagine, for the child at number 33.

If you have a problem with one or several of your parents, or indeed with one or several of your students, the very last thing you should do is to make a public announcement about it, especially in these days of social media, 24 hour news and a press hungry for scandal. By sending a letter to all your parents, you are not only making the point to the parents concerned, you are making the point publicly to the parents who didn’t even do this thing in the first place, and effectively to the press as well. By doing it in this way, you are trying to use the power of shame to induce a change in behaviour, even if that honestly wasn’t your intention. I would never claim to be a perfect parent. I do plenty of stuff that would not pass muster for a parenting manual. Sometimes I accidentally swear in front of my kids. Sometimes I let them stay up later than they should. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to chase them off their computers, or hassle them to do homework. But if a school ever wrote a letter designed to get me to cease and desist in my bad parenting ways, and they sent it to all the other parents at the school as well, I would find myself seriously affronted.

The point about children is that they don’t get to choose their parents but, generally speaking, no matter how crap their parents are, they love us all the same. Yes, some parents are not as aspirational or tiger mum/dad-ish as governments or schools might want; yes, some parents (me included) could do with bucking up our ideas at times. But after that letter had gone out, how would a child feel if he or she was the one brought to school by a parent in pyjamas? Or if he or she was the one who didn’t have a shower that weekend (maybe because the hot water got cut off)? Are the children meant to feel ashamed and embarrassed that they have parents who do not do these things? How exactly does that help children to learn? Where a school has concerns around child protection or neglect, there are clear procedures to follow. But stepping over that line to shame parents for the habit of school-run-pyjama-wearing is not part of the role. Maybe, instead of writing a letter to everyone at the school, a better approach would have been to have a quiet word with individual families, if they really felt that it was essential.

The thing about putting ourselves up on a pedestal in order to shame others, is that we had better make sure that we don’t make any mistakes ourselves after we’ve done it. Because people have very long memories, and they don’t like being told how to bring up their kids. They especially don’t like being told that you disapprove of what they do, as though you were somehow ‘better’ than them. So no, not shame on me. And no, not shame on you. Just isn’t it a damn shame, to focus on shaming, and not on support?

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13 Responses to Shame on You

  1. nancy says:

    I think that this is really interesting. I have seen it time and time again, this blanket approach, and on all sorts of things. Like you say, if there is a problem, or even something nice to say, then tackle it individually. The one that seems to get the biggest airing is packed lunches. Yes, there are always going to be those people who don’t seem to know what to put in a packed lunch (at my first ever school, the one where I was an NQT, we had a child whose mum was clearly worried that they were going to fade away and packed them half a loaf in sandwiches, until the class teacher took them to one side and gently pointed out that they were only 5 years old and didn’t need quite so much!), but it is an issue for the individual, and hardly merits the expense of a letter out to the whole school.

    I wonder why it happens?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘Shame’ on them – I think they have had a taste of their own medicine since it went into the press. I love that I heard at one school all the parents turned up in pjs the next day!
    Lynn McCann @ReachoutASC


  3. I feel sad for everyone involved here. The school was rather clumsy, the parent was rather oppositional and the child was (probably) cringing. No winners.


  4. hilarynunns says:

    There are no winners here: the school have overreacted, the parent has been oppositional and the child is likely to be ceaselessly bullied


  5. It certainly isn’t encouraging a ‘parents as partners’ approach-but more parents as naughty little children.I wonder if some of the PJ parents were similarly ‘shamed’ when they were at school.What sort of impression of the education system will this promote?I would like to point out that although I may turn into PJs as soon as possible when I get in,I would never wear them to school-although reflecting on a previous role as Chair of Governors it may have brightened meetings up slightly……

    Liked by 2 people

  6. julietgreen says:

    This could be me in so many ways. I’m eternally grateful that my daughter is now approaching 30! I can imagine all the shortcomings and causes for concern that I might have been guilty of 2 decades ago. Fortunately for me, her school were interested in her education and her general wellbeing and not on sensationalising my parenting example. Fortunately for me, she turned out to be one of the most well-adjusted, compassionate, intelligent and educated humans I know.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. julieanneda says:

    Shaming is a choice to be punitive. Public shaming is actively inviting others not directly involved to join in with the *punishment* This is a passive aggressive way to bully. Is that the role of any school leader?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. LuckyJim says:

    Very interesting. I agree that the blanket letter can be seen as a shaming tactic, and that this might undermine relationships with the parents in question. I wonder however:
    1. Do we think that it is acceptable for parents to come to school in PJs?
    2. If not, how does a school best deal with this issue?

    For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is undesirable for parents to bring children to school in PJs. I feel that it sets an example to all the children at the school that says “it’s normal not to bother getting dressed in the morning.” I fear that children who internalise this message could be at a disadvantage in a world that values people being clean and dressed smartly. I am aware that I am judging parents negatively based on their personal dress choices. However, if I am a school leader, my duty of care is to the children, and this overrides my respect for parents’ personal choices where they impact negatively on children, especially if they impact other people’s children.

    If a school is not sending out a blanket message, then perhaps they speak to the parents in question individually? I’m not convinced that calling a parent in for a meeting about their own personal dress choices is going to feel any less shaming or humiliating, and what a difficult meeting to conduct in a positive way.

    Should schools be investigating the reasons behind the decision to come to school in PJs and see if the parent needs support in some way? If so, who asks parents about this, and what support can schools realistically offer? How do we make sure that any offer of help is seen as supportive and not patronising?

    All in all, it’s a tricky scenario to navigate. I can see why the school may have acted as they did, as I don’t see an obvious alternative that avoids some degree of shaming. Essentially, those of us who disapprove of parents wearing PJs in public do feel that this behavior is shameful. If we feel it also may adversely affect children, we feel some duty to express this to parents; how do we tell grown adults that we think their behavior is shameful in a positive way?


    • suecowley says:

      I think it’s a very slippery slope if we start saying what we do or do not ‘approve of’ in terms of parental behaviour, obviously beyond issues around neglect or child protection. I might well disapprove of parents who don’t read with their children every night, but stating my disapproval publicly is not going to win me any parental support. The idea that it is ‘better’ for the children for us to ‘shame’ their parents is, I think, a misreading of how the child would feel. The child’s love for the parent overrides any relationship that they have with the school, no matter how ‘deserving’ or not of that love we believe the parent is. My obvious alternative would have been for the school to say nothing at all, on the basis that it is none of my business. It just feels like emotional manipulation, otherwise, to me, which I think is well beyond the rights or duty of a school.


      • LuckyJim says:

        Thanks for the reply Sue. I suspected that this would be your position but wanted to check. I think it’s an entirely tenable position to take. And please, I’m not for a second suggesting that a parent who wears PJs to school doesn’t deserve their child’s love. I apologise if anything in my post suggests that.

        The reading is an interesting one. There is a clear link to children’s educational interests where parents do, or do not, read with their children at home (certainly much clearer than any impact that wearing PJs to school might have!), and a lot of evidence to back up that children who are read with at home perform significantly better on a number of measures.

        For me the interesting question here is how interventionist schools should be in people’s parenting and home lives. It’s clear that in the case of neglect or abuse, a school must act in some way to intervene. On the other end of the spectrum, there are innumerable things that schools clearly have no right or duty to intervene in.

        Somewhere in between these extremes are things like home reading/dietary choices/hygiene and cleanliness where I think different people would have different opinions about where the threshold for action should be. Should a school act in some way if a child is eating fast food for every meal every day? Does this constitute neglect? Should a school act if a child is never reading at home?

        I guess your main point though is that when we do feel the need to act, we should hesitate to do so publicly, and I entirely agree with this. Far better to have a private chat with a parent about the benefits of home reading than to name and shame them if our goal is to encourage more home reading in that family.


        • suecowley says:

          Thank you for your comments. And absolutely, the point at which we decide to ‘intervene’ is the interesting and incredibly tricky bit. I think I had tried to make this blog more about how we should go about intervening (if we believe we should) than what my personal take on this particular situation would be. The point about whether or not parents ‘deserve’ the child’s love is kind of tied up with the shaming bit – if school says my parent is not treating me ‘properly’ by the way they bring me into school, then this might well get mixed up in my mind as saying they are ‘not good enough’ for me, if you see what I mean?

          I think your last paragraph here sums it up perfectly for me – the important thing to ask ourselves is whether what we will do is likely to have a positive impact on learning, and the vast majority of the time, any kind of ‘shaming’ will only increase tension and negative attitudes, and most likely these days lead to negative publicity as well. I really do despair a bit when I see stories about hairstyles, and mass exclusions for uniform – is this really where our focus should be, and why are we encouraging the press to cover these things, by making a ‘statement’ with them, rather than more positive stories about our schools?


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