real life

Mia Freedman: Is this taking punishment too far?

So much is written about school bullying, almost always from the point of the view of the victim and their parents. It's every parent's fear. What if that were my kid? As parents, our natural instinct is to protect our kids, come out swinging in the face of any perceived attack and defend them.

But what if your kid was the bully? What then?

Because for ever bullied child, there is another child - often more than one - who is making the victim's life miserable.

That was the position one woman found herself in when a teacher at her step-daughter's school told her that 10-year-old Kaylee had been bullying another student about the outfits she wore to school.

The Daily Mail reports that Kaylee's stepmother Ally, (who wanted to keep their last name anonymous), discovered the child was bullying another student after a teacher told her that the victim no longer wanted to attend school.

In an e-mail to Ally, the teacher reported that Kaylee had been "harassing" the student for at least three weeks and was tearing apart her wardrobe.

At one point, she even told the other student that she "dressed liked a sleaze."

Concerned, Ally sat down with her step-daughter to discuss the situation but when she wasn't satisfied with the girl's response, she decided to take a more practical approach.

She went to a local thrift shop and spent $50 on a number of second hand outfits no self-respecting 10-year-old would want to be seen dead in.

Here they are:

Ally then explained to Kaylee that she would have to wear the clothes to school for the next two days so she could experience what it might feel like to be teased for the way you were dressed.

Kaylee was mortified and said she actually cried when she saw the clothes. She also said some of the kids at school talked behind her back which upset her but that she learned a lesson.


I had two thoughts when I read about this story.

1. Well played, Stepmum. Well played.

2. Thank heavens we have a culture of school uniforms in Australia because young girls and their clothes are an absolute world of pain. Imagine having that battle every day before school? It's hard enough getting my daughter to wear her winter uniform because "it's sooooo scratchy".

But the reaction when we discussed it on The Today Show and then in the ivillage office was mixed. My opinion was not shared by Georgie Gardner or iVillage editor Alana House, both mothers of daughters, both who worried that this form of punishment was too harsh.

They used the word "shaming". I used the word "empathy".

As all mothers know, words don't always cut it. Explaining to your child why something is wrong is not neccessarily as effective as showing them. And is there any more powerful experience a bully could have than walking in her victim's shoes (if not literally then pretty close).

As Ally explained, "Someone not wanting to go to school anymore based off of something that one other little person said to them. I mean, that’s huge, that’s damaging."

It should be noted that the step mother has not identified her daughter, did not allow anyone to publish her name or pictures of her face. So she wasn't hanging her out in the world for possible persecution or abuse. This woman was merely trying to show her exactly what it's like to be made to feel ashamed or self-conscious about what you're wearing. And it was only for two days!

I once read that the essence of an effective punishment is that it should be delivered out of a desire to teach your child consequences, not out of anger. To me, this punishment ticked those boxes. It was creative, perfectly tailored to the 'crime' and would surely have had a far deeper and longer lasting effect on Kaylee's understanding of bullying than, say, banning the 10-year-old from TV for a week.

What do you think? Are you comfortable with this kind of punishment? What else could Ally have done to show Kaylee how devastating bullying can be?