I'm the mother of a young teen. I was a young teen once myself. And if there's one thing I know about young teens, it's this: They do boneheaded things. It's unavoidable. The combination of surging hormones and not-yet-mature brains leads to choices ranging from merely unwise to downright criminal. As parents, we have the hard and frustrating job of both helping our kids avoid those choices and enforcing penalties when they do make them. But one mom is getting major grief for the way she reportedly dealt with her 13-year-old daughter's sexting a boy: by forcing her to hold up a sexually graphic sign on a busy intersection.
NBC Los Angeles reports that witnesses in Riverside, California, saw a teen standing at a local intersection, holding up a handmade sign reading, "I'm 13 I Ask For D*** Pics."
Ah yes, the old public/slut-shaming approach.
According to onlooker Krista Wilson, the girl was there for several hours, crying as people passed by and laughed. "I saw her bawling her eyes out," another witness told the news, adding that the teen was "saying she didn't want to do this." A woman in an SUV nearby -- presumably the mother -- was watching her, and the girl reportedly went to talk to the woman at least once.
Finally, Wilson and the other bystanders called the police, who spoke to the mom and determined that her punishment wasn't child abuse ... at least, not in the eyes of the law.
Naturally, once Wilson posted her story online, lots of folks chimed in. Some thought the mother went too far; others thought the experience would teach the daughter a lasting lesson about sexting.
"I would do the same," writes one commenter on the above video. "... she shouldn't be asking for pictures of male genitalia ... I'm glad her parents taught her a lesson."
"Sorry if you think this sign is shaming her, but it is meant to shame her, and make her embarrassed of her behavior. Which she should ABSOLUTELY be ashamed of," writes another.
I can only just imagine what was going through this girl's mom's mind when she found out what was going on. It's a harsh awakening to realize that the child who used to live for Chuck E. Cheese's, Disney movies, and multiple readings of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is now just a few short years from adulthood. It's even more of a shock to realize that this same child is using her phone for something other than listening to Pentatonix or gossiping with her BFF.
If this had been my child, I would have freaked out, too. I might have pitched a fit, launched into a lecture, or maybe hidden in my bedroom for a few hours of crying and where did I go wrong-ing. That phone would have been quickly confiscated -- for a month, or two, or ten, or until my kid left for college.
But make her pay for her screwup in such a publicly humiliating way? Never.
Putting a child through the Scarlet Letter treatment may make her feel embarrassed and ashamed. It might make her think more carefully about how she presents herself online or in texts. But it doesn't address the real issue: why a 13-year-old is sexting in the first place.
For some kids, it's done as a prank, or as a private exchange that gets out of control. A report in the Atlantic found that teens often send provocative pictures to a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to have the recipient pass the image along to friends. Many also do it as a way to bond with friends late at night, after the stresses of school and clubs are over.
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At 13, kids don't have the foresight to understand what can happen when they send inappropriate pictures out into the ether. They don't realize that many states have laws against sending pictures of minors; a sext can end up branding a teen as a registered sex offender. Even if they don't get into legal trouble, teens may regret their sexting habits later in life if their pictures get seen by colleges or potential employers.
Teen girls who sext can suffer long-term damage to both their self-image and social reputation. One recent study shows that girls who sext out of peer pressure feel worse about it afterward than girls who sext for other reasons. It's also easy for girls to be labeled as promiscuous if their nude selfies make the rounds far enough -- and to become the victims of slut-shaming.
Thirteen-year-olds may like to think that they know it all. They're confident that they can control their own bodies and online images. But for all their swagger, there's still a lot of child left in them. They need loving guidance, and turning a young teen into a public spectacle isn't the way to give it.
Those agonizing hours this girl spent on the street corner would have been better spent having an open talk with her parents about her friendships, feelings, and the risks of sexting. She needs to know that her family is on her side and loves her despite her lousy judgment. She needs some time to think about what she did and what kind of image she wants to present to the world.
Hopefully, her mother has cooled off enough to give her barely-adolescent daughter what she really needs: not a public punishment, but a much more valuable lesson in love, self-respect, and privacy.
Image via NBCLA/Facebook