NEW YORK — Russell Fredrick’s middle son was 12 when he wouldn’t quit playing around in class and ignoring his homework, so the barber did what he does best. He picked up his clippers and cut off his fade.
But it wasn’t just any cut. It was a complete shave intended as a form of discipline when other tactics like taking away gadgets failed to work.
“After I shaved him bald, I told him that if things continued I would get more creative with each cut,” said Fredrick, co-owner of A-1 Kutz in Snellville, Georgia. “But I never had to because he straightened up his act.”
Fredrick and his son — one of three — are success stories in a social media trend: parents taking electric razors to the heads of their misbehaving tweens and teens to create ugly cuts as a form of punishment, then publicly posting the handiwork on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere.
After Fredrick put a photo on Instagram of his son’s shave late last year, parents began to approach him for embarrassing, old-man cuts dubbed Benjamin Button specials or the George Jefferson, named for their baldness up top and fringe left on the sides and around the base like the movie and TV characters they’re named for.
He’s done more than 20 since February, free of charge.
“Whenever people come in and ask for it we do it,” said the 35-year-old Russell. “You’ve got to reach these kids before law enforcement has to do the punishing.”
The spate of ugly-cut videos over the last six months or so has lit up debate over public shaming as discipline and fits into a broader trend of parents using social media video to humiliate their kids online, from yelling and screaming to smashing their computers or phones for infractions like bad grades or breaking curfew — to outright corporal punishment.
Chicago psychologist Claudia Shields, who has helped parents find healthy ways of disciplining their children based on behavioral research, is far from convinced that public shaming works.
“The most effective ways of changing behavior, as surprising as it may seem, do not involve any form of punishment. I prefer discipline based on positive reinforcement. Many parents think that these are ‘weaker’ forms of punishment, but over and over, we find that this is more effective,” she said.
Much has been made over the recent death of a teenage girl who killed herself in Tacoma, Washington, and a video shared online that shows her father scolding her after her hair was cut short. Police said, however, that the girl’s death appears unrelated to the video and the father didn’t share it on social media himself.
In recent weeks, there’s been a curious, positive backlash to the bad hair videos, with far happier endings than the tears or downcast eyes of the young recipients. Some copycats have put up videos pretending they’re going to do the deed only to hug it out with their sons instead.
“There’s no way in the world I would ever embarrass my son like that,” said Wayman Gresham, a 45-year-old father of four in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
He created one of the parodies with his 12-year-old Isaiah and put it on Facebook on June 6. It’s been viewed there more than 21 million times and shared around the Internet.
“It doesn’t take all of that. Good parenting starts before he even gets to the point of being out of control,” Gresham implores in the video. “Good parenting is letting your child know that you loved him regardless of what they are and who they are and showing them the way by example.”
Gresham criticizes the profanity parents used in some of the ugly-cut videos. In a recent interview he added: “I’m not against discipline but I am against humiliating and just snatching the dignity away from a child. If you’re going to discipline your child I think it should be done out of the public eye.”
Fredrick, too, has his limits. He won’t bad-cut the hair of girls, for instance. And the youngest boy was 9. He doesn’t consider ugly cuts effective on kids younger than that.
“If this is what parents want to do, I feel like you have to do whatever it takes to reach a kid,” he said. “If you take a phone away or video games away and that’s not reaching him, you have to do something. You can’t whoop them. If you whoop them you get in trouble with law enforcement, so you have to do something or let these kids run wild.”
Fredrick is quick to point out that he gives away nice cuts as well to reward kids for excellent grades and to honor their birthdays. And the mother of his first Benjamin Button, named for the reverse-aging Brad Pitt character in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” returned to let him know her son received an award at the end of school this year for best academic improvement.
“I try to talk to the kids a little first,” he said. “They’re usually pretty much embarrassed and feeling bad about what’s going on. Nobody’s come back a second time.”
Among thousands of comments on several of the videos are those questioning the motives of parents. Are they looking for viral attention for themselves? That’s hard to prove or disprove, but Gresham’s not the only parent to sound off online after viewing a particularly trash-talking, clipper-happy couple and their two shorn sons in a six-minute video.
Phillip Scott, an oil and gas industry worker in Houston, has nearly 400,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, The Advise Show TV. He recently flagged that version featuring the brothers who got the hair punishment, one for taking a knife to school and the other for fighting with girls, according to the video.
“This goes way back in African American communities,” Scott said in an interview. “I’m 35 and I remember it was happening then. My dad is 58 and he’d talk about it here and there, too.”
Scott has three daughters and a 10-year-old son. He’s never gone the hair route, but he doesn’t judge parents who use it on teen boys for serious infractions, as a last resort.
“A grown man I know said, ‘Hey, I’m glad my dad did that because I was really getting into trouble,'” Scott said. “Hair is a big thing, but it will grow back. Which way are we going to have it? Are we going to have the parents do the discipline or the police do the discipline? I prefer the parents.”