by Thu Van
For the crime of talking with a friend during a ceremony at my secondary school, I was asked to come up on stage and face the whole school, and made to stay there after everyone else returned to their classrooms.
The shame, humiliation and hurt I felt that day as a sixth grade student whose peers cast strange looks at me stays to this day as a strong memory, despite the fact that I am now an adult with my own children and can dismiss such "silly" incidents.
Actually, these are anything but silly. A news item last week reinforced my belief that the use of public humiliation as a disciplinary measure is not just backward, but a crime against children committed by adults who are supposed to be their guides and guardians.
In the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, a seventh grade girl who stole two books from the Vi An Bookstore was forced by the staff to stand in front of the store with a placard around her neck board proclaiming: "I am a thief."
The hugely disproportionate punishment to a petty mistake was condemned by many.
Nguyen Van Nam, who runs a law firm in Ho Chi Minh City, said the little girl cannot be punished by law because the value of the two books was too small, but the staff of the bookstore can be sentenced up to three years for insulting her.
"Legally speaking, human dignity and property rights are values that are protected by the law. Protecting one value by infringing the other is an irrational thing to do," said Nguyen Si Dung, Vice Chairman of the National Assembly Office who has a doctorate degree in education.
Subjecting a young girl to the stress and humiliation of facing the public wearing a placard is not a punishment, it is an act of cruelty that has no place in a civilised society.
"In terms of education, a person can only engage in right actions when his or her dignity is respected. When he or she feels the dignity is lost, we can't expect that person to be better," Dung said.
"Humiliation can have a particularly detrimental impact on children. Public humiliation, particularly of very young children, can damage their self-esteem and create significant barriers to their learning," he added.
The online newspaper, Dan Tri, reported that the girl was badly frightened when her relative picked her up at the bookstore. She tried to hit her head with a stick and later, to commit suicide.
On hearing this poor girl's story, a man from Ho Chi Minh City recounted online a similar incident in his life. Ten years ago, he had stolen a book from the Nguyen Hue Bookstore in the city.
"My mother was poor and books were too expensive for me," he said.
He had stolen two books of his favourite writer, Nguyen Nhat Anh, and was caught by the bookstore staff. But instead of publicly humiliating him, the staff let him go "with a lot of advice."
"Since then, I have never thought of stealing anything," said the man, who now earns his living as a writer.
"I grew up regretting the incident and it evoked in me the desire to be better, but the little girl might carry the humiliation and hatred all her life," he said.
Not long ago, a teacher in Binh Dinh Province slapped an eleventh-grade student and was hit by another student in the same class in response. What can we say? Who has lost out in this situation? If they do not learn the right lessons on humility and dignity from this, everyone loses - both the students and the teacher, not to mention everyone who witnessed it.
When you humiliate a child, you are not only telling him or her that it is okay to do this to other people, but you are also inflicting a psychological wound that may never fully heal.
Kids make mistakes, they break the rules, and they are sometimes rebellious. These are all part of growing up, although there are some actions that cannot be condoned.
But responding to their mistakes by humiliating them is a weak, desperate tactic to control others that should have no place in a civilized society, and inflicting it on children at a tender age will have far-reaching consequences – not only on them as individuals but on all of us as part of a society.
Of course, there are times when sanctions and punishments are called for, but a civilized society will ensure that these are done in a way that encourages behavioural changes coming out of a clear understanding among wrongdoers themselves of the mistakes made.
Last week's incident should serve as a wake-up call to each one of us.
We need to ask ourselves: Are we interested in giving others, including our children, the dignity, kindness, compassion and love they deserve or do we prefer to instill fear, anger and pain?
Do we want to heal the wounds we inflict on our children (and ourselves) or let them fester forever? — VNS