The Ethics of Christmas Shaming

Ethics Alarms participant Jeff Hibbert asks my reactions to this photo:

Blurry face boy

[The sign reads: “I have to take back my PS3 that I was getting for Christmas because I wasn’t grateful to receive a Captain America action figure (That I received from Church) so I’m going Christmas shopping for other kids with the refund money!”  The actual photo on the web shows the unblurred face of an unhappy boy, and that is how I originally posted it. However, after some prompting by Jeff, I concluded that I was adding to the boy’s plight by helping to publicize his identity. Ethics Alarms commenter texagg04 kindly provided this version, as well as three others that gave me some Christmas mirth by replacing the boy’s face with Bart Simpson’s, a smiley face, and most inspired of all, the face of recent Ethics Alarms’ subject John Dillinger.]

I can’t find any context for it, back-story, or the name of the family involved. (I’m glad about that last part, by the way.)  If it is what it appears to be, a young boy’s parents are subjecting him to rather harsh punishment for displaying inadequate gratitude for a gift he didn’t care for, by forcing him to return his favorite gift, a Play Station 3, and use the money to buy gifts for presumably needy children.

I’m not going to second guess their methods of teaching their child gratitude, generosity, good manners and the proper way to accept a gift. This is tough love, but who knows? He might remember it for the rest of his life, in a good way. Of perhaps the bitter experience will plant a mutant seed that will bloom into hateful and avaricious adulthood. The parents are trying to make a point, and its an ethical point. Good luck to them.

I don’t like the fact that the child was made to pose for the photo with the sign, and that it was posted on the web.  I think any aspect of a punishment that outlives the effects of the offense and a continues to do harm long after the original wrongdoer has reformed is unfair, abusive and cruel. If, as seems to be the case, the boy’s parents added to his punishment of having to return his Play Station 3 by first photographing the kid holding a sign describing his transgression, and then memorializing his humiliation by posting it on the internet, they took the lesson into unethical territory. Punishing their child for his spoiled and ungracious behavior by taking away a cherished gift is a legitimate exercise of parental authority, if a bit excessive for my tastes, especially at Christmastime. Turning him into the web poster child for ungrateful and spoiled children everywhere is, I believe, an abuse of that authority.

40 thoughts on “The Ethics of Christmas Shaming

  1. Interesting post. I absolutely understand the taking away of the PS3; that makes sense under the “Alright you spoiled little bastard…” parental right to shock your children into compliance with expected behavior standards. The web posting, not so much. Seems a bit ‘look at us’, ( perhaps for the benefit of their church members?), but, unfortunately, what ISN’T posted on the web nowadays? They overstepped the boundry there, in my opinion, but what the hell is the norm?
    The concept of a punishment outliving the effects of an offense and continuing to do harm after the wrongdoer has reformed is fascinating. Especially when applied to criminal law, and sentencing guidelines.
    Why would we need a web poster child for ungrateful and spoiled children? I just glance at any family photo.
    Merry Christmas to all.

  2. That’s pretty much what I figured. I was right along with them until the “posting it on the Internet for everyone to see for eternity” thing. I think that’s a step that makes a lot of things unethical.

    This may bring up the question: is using the picture HERE unethical? Or is the small amount of harm of spreading the image mitigated by demonstrating the deficiencies in the parents?

    • You know, I never thought about that. And I usually do, like when I write about viral private e-mails that someone circulated to hurt someone else. It might be unethical for me to use the picture now…I am arguably adding to the harm. There are counter arguments—I have no special duty to the kid, but the parents do; my duty is to advance understanding of ethical conduct, and that is accomplished by publicizing the story, which isn’t very clear or compelling without the photo. Usually I become aware of these types of issues after they are so known on the web that my participation is negligible. I don’t know about this one—there doesn’t seem to be much out there yet. Maybe an ethics blog can’t be at the front of these kinds of issues. Thanks for raising the dilemma. I’m thinking…

  3. Although I am ambiguous on this type of punishment, I do believe the parents should be standing beside him holding signs that say, “I failed to instill the attitude of gratitude in my child when he was small”.

  4. The parents need parenting classes. Mental abuse is as bad and as unacceptable as physical abuse. Their punishment is abuse.

  5. I’m not even sure if this is an ethics question, just a politeness lesson. Parents have an obligation to teach proper manners to their children, but this is over the top punishment! Taking away his Christmas present is not right. Making this picture is wrong! What this teaches the kid is that “might makes right”, that if you are big enough you can force others to do what you want. This is a good foundation for establishing a framework of a moral adult, hmmm?

    I gotta wonder why the kid received a ‘present’ from the church? It would appear the family is well off, so why? Maybe those toys should have gone to the REAL needy families, you think maybe?

    • I think a good case can be made that this is indeed an abuse of power, and that excessive and arbitrarily harsh parental punishment (or school punishment) does teach the warped lesson that authority exists to be abused.

    • A punishment involving some sort of withholding for a period of time would have sufficed. Couple that with some similar altruistic action towards the less fortunate to see how they might react to generosity. That combination may help drive the point home without a lingering resentment of having the Christmas gift forever denied.

      Of course, children’s behavior are often great barometers on parent’s behavior. Could be a very opportune time for the parents to become introspective and assess whether or not their habits tend towards graciousness or not.

  6. Harsh punishment, and the parents should be ashamed of themselves. Furthermore, did the child want the action figure in the first place? Or, did the church give it to him to force him further into their cult-like hold? Most children don’t show a lot of gratitude when they get stuff they really don’t want.

    • The last is an “everybody does it” excuse—it’s still rude not to show gratitude for any sincere gift. I don’t blame the parents for trying to teach him that this isn’t the right way to handle that situation.

  7. Well, there are a few things here you should think about and because you don’t have that information, you are making some pretty big assumptions.

    While the sign says he is ungrateful, it doesn’t say how he behaved so. I guessed his age at about 11-13, and probably in possession of a social media account, so if his behavior that got him in trouble was posted to a social media site, they picture posting may be equal to the crime, as the goal is to show the punishment to the people who witnessed the poor behavior. An internet version of your parents making you go into the store where you stole something and give it back and apologize.

    It is not like it used to be when you (and probably we…don’t know your age) grew up where our behavior in the home stayed largely in the home. Our temper tantrums tended to stay pretty much in our own households. These days a kid throws a fit, posts a rant on his facebook about how crappy his Captain America toy is, and instantly everyone he knows sees it, and probably their parents, and all of THEIR friends to boot.

    In a world where his behavior very well may have been internet based ( I hear the internet and social media are a bit popular) an internet based punishment may have been fitting. The fact that it went viral is not the parents fault. How they handle it -after- it went viral will be a better sign of their intent.

    • You just tossed in some pretty imaginative assumptions yourself.

      With unknown information you discuss what you can.

      We could invent any narrative for this scenario, but it IS useful using the barebones known facts for an ethical discussion.

      Who knows maybe the boy had scraped up 20 bucks of allowance money, bought a captain America toy and donated it to the church. He didn’t want to tell his parents cuz he is the paragon of humble giving.

      During a foul up in the exchange, he got his own toy back. His first inclination was to show confusion. However his furrowed brow was immediately misinterpreted by his vodka addled father and domineering-abusive mother as having no gratitude.

      Just stick with Occam’s razor for the purpose of discussion.

      • You are right, we cant “know” the whole story. What we can do is make educated guesses based on a preponderance of evidence and experience. I spend a few hours a day pouring over social media metric spreadsheets so I can say with some degree of competency that teenage boys do in fact use social media quite a lot.

        While your idea is certainly creative, its got no real basis in reality. On the other hand assuming that a young teenage boy both has access to, and frequently uses social media, is not only supported by usage statistics of the demographic but also by experience as a parent.

        Now I cant say for certain what happened, what I am saying is that making a judgement on the ethical standing of someones behavior when lacking the whole picture is foolhardy at best, and presented a likely and possible example as to why. Then I suggested that the best judge of the situation is to wait and see what happens as time goes on, as the video gains popularity, it will garner new attention, and more information will come in.

        Occam’s razor is often misused, as you did, to suggest that all other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one. That is not in fact what it says at all. What it says is that a simpler explanation of something should be used UNTIL it can be traded for greater explanatory power. What it does is shift the burden of proof in a discussion. All I am saying is before throwing the parents to the wolves, it is better to not pass judgement at all and wait for more information.

        • He doesn’t look like a teen to me, but more to the point, the photo is posted, and we have the right and responsibility to make out judgment based on what we have been shown—by the parents who made the kid pose and then web-shamed their son. The “we need more information” argument is frequently justified, but more frequently is used as a rationalization for not making any judgment at all, shrugging, and walking away. Like here. Even with your aggressively presumptive scenario, the sign and the posting crosses the line from (arguably) reasonable discipline to abuse of power and cruelty—parental bullying.

          • Now there it seems like we are simply at different positions, which is fine, on if we should or should not pass a judgement with the amount of information we have.

            The only point i feel is warranted is to think about which we would prefer… a parent who goes to this extreme or the one who never even tries to teach graciousness at all.

            • Which is a false choice. How about a parent who instill proper values without abuse and cruelty? Ethically, your question is simple—the ends don’t justify the means, and using cruelty to children to instill graciousness (while displaying lack of proportion, self-control and kindness) is not justifiable. I’d rather trust that a child will out grow graciousness with maturity than humiliate him on the web, which may have its own unintended consequences.

              • Sure, in a hypothetical world we can both hope that all parents will be flawless and do exactly the right thing, however unless you are claiming that flawless is possible, its likely that a parent will fall on one side or the other. Life is not hypothetical question.

                • It is still a horribly False Dichotomy.

                  Those may be either end of the spectrum, but somewhere on that spectrum lies a middle point, and if either end of the spectrum had values of -100 and 100 respectively, a Parent falling just 1 or 2 points to the left of right of that mid point CANNOT be accurately described by the extremes.

        • You completely ignored the 1st two sentences from Wikipedia, where you lifted your explanation of Occam’s Razor from. But that’s beside the point.

          The point of the matter is, from what we know, which is all we know, from the image, we can glean valuable ethical points, which the discussion fleshed out thoroughly.

          Adding assumptions might be useful for expanding the lesson for future similar events that might occur, which may have slightly different circumstances, if that is the purpose identified.

          However, adding those assumptions in order to muddy the water of the conclusions reached isn’t useful.

          • Actually the definition I took was from a book called “Philosophy of Statistics”, which I am presuming is the source of the Wikipedia page.

            • The point of the matter is, from what we know, which is all we know, from the image, we can glean valuable ethical points, which the discussion fleshed out thoroughly.

              Adding assumptions might be useful for expanding the lesson for future similar events that might occur, which may have slightly different circumstances, if that is the purpose identified.

              However, adding those assumptions in order to muddy the water of the conclusions reached isn’t useful.

              • Someone who takes in only what is visually in front of them, and ignoring what is likely involved based on experience , and data, is just looking to confirm their own ideas.

                • Nice non-substantive response.

                  I’d submit that a person who adds assumptions based on pure speculation — not even artistic extrapolation based on a tiny amount of evidence — but additions to the narrative based wholly on what they admitted was their own personal experience, is actually the person looking to confirm their own ideas.

                  The rest of us will have to settle for analyzing the data that is confirmed.

                  • Nice ad-hominem response 😀

                    You clearly disagree with me on this, you think nothing should be added, I think we should always operate with the larger picture in mind using much more then personal experience. You may have missed the parts where I mention things like spending a few hours a day studying social media metric spreadsheets… I assure you my familiarity with the popularity and use of social media in that demographic is far more then just personal experience. I have actually seen the studies, and used that data professionally…that is why I speak with such confidence when I am talking about teens and social media. It is also how I came across this site and posting.

                    Clearly you and I are going to stay on opposite sides of the fence, and you seem more intent on making me wrong, then making yourself right, so lets just agree to have different opinions on this one.

                    • I don’t think you understand what ad hominem attacks are.

                      I have no problem with adding speculation, as long as it is identified as such, and therefore all conclusions based on those assumptions identified as “maybes”.

                      I have no doubt your professional or personal studies make you close to expert on the statistics of social media usage.

                      No attempt to make you wrong, you are wrong on your own.

                      The reason I’m right is that I insist on responsible methodology. You are pushing pure speculation as the answer to what happened behind the scene. Nothing you have pushed is confirmed or observed, mere speculation.

                      I have no problem with theorizing or asking about mitigating unknowns, under the topic of theorizing or speculating.

                      But you invented a narrative of what happened based on pure speculation and then summarily concluded the parent’s behavior was proper based on speculation. That is faulty judgment and you do what you claimed others have done: “looking to confirm their own ideas.”

    • I think this is far-fetched. Why would you assume he was ungrateful about a church gift on Facebook? The most likely scenario, today as in 1976, is that he was given a gift and turned up his nose at it. What are the odds that a family this strict allows an 11 year old to use the web, much less have a Facebook account? I’m assuming that the sign speaks and the photo speaks for themselves, as the parents intended them to do. That’s a big assumption?

      Now, it’s also possible that the kid is a 45-year old dwarf hoaxer, but I don’t think I’m bound to consider that remote possibility in evaluating the incident either.

      • If you think it is unlikely that an 11 year old has a Facebook account, then you are perhaps a little out of touch with kids these days. The -vast- majority of kids in middle school use social media. It is an overwhelming percentage.

        • Yes, and the overwhelming percentage of kids don’t have parents this Draconian and strict. The strictest parents I know did NOT allow their kids to use social media until their middle teens, and none of them would have been this cruel.

        • I have an 11 year old, and he does not have a Facebook (or any other social media) account. Very few of his friends do, either. There are a lot of kids his age who do have them, but they consistently seem to be the kids whose parents give them whatever they want and think they can do no wrong. I don’t think it’s completely wrong to make certain assumptions about the situation, but I do think that the assumption that the kid must have posted about it on social media is a big one. And that point aside, if a preteen or teenage child makes a mistake, it is not the parents’ job to stoop to the child’s level in punishment. It is, in fact, a parent’s job to rise above the emotion of the situation and teach the child appropriately. I don’t think that job was accomplished here. I do not pretend to have any experience in studying ethics or the behaviors of humans outside of those that I interact with.

          • I dont think he must have, I think its possible he did, and as such I think we shouldn’t pass judgement without more information on a clearly (to me) ambiguous situation.

            I wouldn’t be so sure about your kid not have accounts either, I know no parent wants to think their kid is breaking the rules, but lots of parents think their kids don’t have accounts who do. Maybe your one of the good ones, who knows how to track a kid who is using google chrome’s incognito feature so their is no web history but he doesn’t have to clean it out so its obvious, or who is smart enough to see what apps he downloads, deletes, then downloads again on his smart phone….

            Im still formulating an opinion on if the parents punishment was appropriate or not, conversations like those I have here help me form my own thoughts on it a bit more cohesively. I see the level of entitlement of college age kids every day, and I wonder what could have been done to avoid that.

  8. I do believe you have been duped. Take a close look at that image, the size of the paper, the changes in paper brightness, and the way too legible print. It’s a hoax. These types of “look, I’m holding a piece of paper that the internet trolls can make say anything they want it to” have been around forever. It’s not real. It’s being used to bash Christmas, this poor kid, and “church”.

    • I don’t. It looks like a real kid. You can claim any photo is a hoax. If it is, shame on them. Looks legit to me. The commentary is real, and the analysis is valid. That’s what matters here.

      • I would agree, real or not it spawned a good discussion, our opinions and thoughts are the good take away.

        Besides I think the change of brightness is because its two separate pages held sideways, and his parents probably wrote it. I don’t think, even if fake, that the intent is to bash Christmas or churches…

  9. I have done some research and sadly it appears to be a real post. First off, I hate Christmas (bah humbug!) and I really dislike bratty children..but even my heart broke for this little boy. I must agree with many that a child his age doesn’t even need a PS3, really, no child needs one. They need to produce brain cells and save our doomed country, but I digress.

    I need more information to form a solid opinion. Like, for example, did he throw the unwanted toy across the room whilst stomping his foot and folding his arms across his chest declaring loudly and in whine perfect pitch, “this toy is suitable for a BABY, not for a young man like myself!”. Did he throw himself to the floor, crying and punching the captain america toy? Or did he simply wrinkle his nose and sigh a sigh of disproval?

    Being a parent of a very smart, yet sassy young lady I see things like this coming and I head them off. For her 7th birthday I reminded her to be gracious for all her gifts and to make no mention of repeat gifts or already owned gifts. But to simply smile and say thank you. I went on to explain this by asking her how she would want her gift received. She understood and was a terrific, gracious birthday girl. So part of this, to me, indicates bad parenting, for 1 his behavior and for 2 a gift he really doesn’t need, and now 3, publicly humiliating him, which was 1 step too far in my opinion.

    I would think putting the PS3 away until he did some good to earn it back would of been sufficient. But I think the public humiliation and forcing him to take it back and purchase gifts for other kids doesn’t truly change his heart or attitude towards others. It was the wrong way to go about teaching a lesson of humiliation and gratitude. Though I understand where they are coming from when my daughter threw a screaming fit over a stuffed animal I told her she couldn’t have she, to my horror, told me she was going to rip every head off her stuffed animals she owned. She was 4 and I was shocked (A lot of stuff runs through your head, like “am I raising a little psycho?!). So I met her with a stern look and a trash bag and told her if that was the case then she didn’t need them and to throw them away. I made her bag up every single one and walk the path of shame to the dumpster. People (my mother) suggested I should of made her give them away, but I don’t want her to have a bad taste for giving. So to the trash they went! To this day she has never, ever said anything remotely like that and has been very gracious for her gifts and doesn’t dare throw a fit when she doesn’t get something she pines for. But I most certainly would of never posted her crying face leaning into the dumpster throwing the toys away to the entire world to see. It was a private matter shared only with my mom and best friend.

    I agree also with others, this was a parenting moment where they wanted to say, “Look at me! I am a hard core parent!! I should get a medal or something!”…sad.

  10. Pingback: How many “likes” does it take? | That one journalism class

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