Shame happens quietly. It doesn’t bruise and it doesn’t scrape, and there is no obvious facial expression that marks its landing. It’s easy to miss, and it’s easy to think it doesn’t cause any problems. But it does.
Shame happens in all sorts of families, including loving, attentive, nurturing ones. It manages behaviour by persuading kids to feel bad about themselves for needing, feeling or wanting something. It is a comment about what the child is, rather than what the child has done and it causes children to shrink away from their potential, rather than be ignited by it.
The Problem with Shame.
It fails to help kids internalise values and lessons.
Shaming kids kills their capacity to act from internalised values, and instead fires up their desire to simply stay out of trouble. We send them backwards. They might do the right thing, but internally there’s no connection between their behaviour and doing the ‘right’ thing, or acting with compassion and empathy. It creates compliant kids who will act in such a way as to avoid future shame, but it does nothing to build kids with strong minds who are guided by an internalised drive to make good choices. When kids feel shame, they will focus on who they are (naughty? disappointing?), rather than what they’ve done.
It fails to teach empathy.
Empathy is the cornerstone of healthy relationships and emotional intelligence. It requires that children look outside of themselves to see what other people might be experiencing, but shame consumes their attention and turns it inward on themselves and their deficiencies. We know from research that children who are more likely to feel shame actually have less capacity to feel empathy towards others.
It can encourage socially unacceptable behaviour.
Shaming causes kids to feel small and powerless. Disempowerment is an awful thing to feel and some children will try to reclaim this by finding another way to exert their power – usually by seeking out someone who is more vulnerable and easier to stand over.
Models poor problem solving.
Shaming models dysfunctional ways to deal with problems. It teaches kids that it’s okay to be critical, judgemental, righteous when someone gets it wrong. If we yell the message, it’s even worse. A tantrum is a tantrum whether it’s from an adult or a child. I’ve thrown a few decent ones myself, but when it happens, it’s important not to hold it out as deserved or provoked by the child. In the same way we need them to own their behaviour, we need to do the same.
Encourages lies and secrecy.
Kids, like us, are wired towards self-preservation. If telling the truth about a less than glorious moment will expose them to shame, this can be enough reason to avoid the truth at all costs. If we want them to tell the truth, we need to make it safe for them to do that.
Fails to encourage ownership of the behaviour.
In order to change a behaviour, there has to be room to own it. Only then is there scope to explore the effects and start thinking about a more effective way to respond. Shame is more likely to encourage denial on the basis that owning it would confirm the message of being less than.
What do we do instead?
Children naturally want to please the people they care about. They’ll get it wrong – we all do – but inside them is the desire and spirit to do the right thing. They will naturally develop into empathic, kind and respectful adults, but this will require treating them with the same kindness and respect that we expect from them. Shaming can break that spirit and break the connection with us. The worst thing about this is that it will fade our influence like it was never there to begin with.
Focus on the behaviour, not the person.
All kids are going to do things that leave us baffled, angry or frustrated. If they’re anything like the rest of us, they’ll never stop. Rather than making a comment about them or who they are, (‘You’re so naughty’), talk about what they’ve done, (‘I’m really upset that you pushed your brother. I understand that you’re angry, but what would have been a better thing to do?’). Discipline, as in ‘disciple’, means to teach, and the best type comes with patience, love and guidance.
Expand their emotional literacy.
Being able to get a sense of our own feelings, as well as someone else’s, is a hallmark of strong emotional intelligence. Shame crushes the opportunity to widen their emotional vocabulary because it wipes out dialogue. Dialogue is gold, and there are rich opportunities even when things aren’t going well. When setting boundaries, make a strong, clear statement about the impact of their behaviour, (‘I’m upset that you lied to me, and I’m confused about why you thought you had to.’ ‘I feel angry when I see you push your brother like that. I know you can do better than that’), rather than speaking negatively about them, (‘You’re so naughty for lying to me’). There is nothing wrong with them seeing you feeling angry, upset or frustrated in response to their behaviour, provided you make it about their behaviour and not about them. That’s how the world works, and you aren’t doing them any favours by letting them think everyone will respond to the things they do with indifference or perfect measure. Of course, it’s important not to be carried away in the emotion – intense anger or sadness can be scary for them and makes conversation and connection pretty much impossible.
Be the person you want them to be.
They watch everything we do, and what they see in our unguarded moments is powerful. There is no greater way to influence them than to be the person we want them to be, and to respond to them the way we want them to respond to the world. Let them see consistency between what we say and what we do. If we tell them to be kind and tolerant, but shame them when they get things wrong, we’re communicating so many messages: ‘Everyone deserves kindness except you.’ ‘Kids have to be kind but grownups can be anything.’ ‘It’s okay to be mean to smaller people.’ For a little person (or a big one), it doesn’t get much more confusing than that.
Treat them as though they are already the person you want them to be.
Every time we interact with them, we’re shaping the image they have of themselves. That image is so powerful – they’ll live up to it or down to it. We want to preserve their sense of self and keep the image of themselves as whole, intact, creative, capable, powerful, strong, beautiful beings. We also want them to see themselves as emotionally responsible. This is so important. Lifting them up, and nurturing their sense of personal empowerment, without teaching them about the impact of their behaviour on people runs the risk of raising little narcissists who are forever getting their own needs met at the expense of everyone else’s. We can nurture the image inside them by treating them as though they are already the people we want them to be, ‘I know you are a really caring person and you wouldn’t hurt people on purpose. Let’s talk about what just happened.’ ‘I know that you didn’t intend to hurt your sister’s feelings, but that what happens when mean things are said. How can you put this right?’ What we attend to is what will become important, so if we can slow things down enough to see them through their behaviour, we will be lighting up the person they are capable of becoming.
Avoid the labels.
Labels can happen so easily and although they are often done with love and the best of intentions, they can backfire. If one child is known as, say, ‘the sporty one’ or ‘the funny one’, other children in the family might interpret themselves as ‘not the sporty one’ or ‘not the funny one’. There’s nothing wrong with telling kids how much fun they are or how much you love watching them do their thing on the sports field, but we want multi-dimensional kids who make up their own minds about their strengths and weaknesses, and who will have a go at plenty of things, whether it turns out to be ‘their thing’ or not.
Don’t buy in to the comparisons.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the hysteria – and it can feel like hysteria – about where your own child sits in relation to other kids in the grade, the team, the music class – or whatever it is they’re in. Be careful of those parent all-in chats where everyone else’s child seems to be studying so much harder than yours, reading Shakespeare while yours is stumbling over Peppa Pig, or listening to Mozart while yours is listening to the sound that happens when they suck on a straw and the glass goes empty. They’ll have their own strengths and they’ll find their own ways to shine. It might be in completely unexpected way and they might not find it for a while – and that’s okay. In the meantime, give them the freedom to explore without forcing them to be something they’re not. Encourage them down different tracks, and encourage their effort, but fall short of comparing them. Talking to other parents can trigger our own shame around being ‘good enough’ parents. I feel like I’m constantly wrestling with this one. Deal with it and put it where it belongs, but don’t pass it on to the kids. Take a step back and see them for the whole, phenomenal, unique people they are. Sometimes, it’s the things they do differently to everyone else that turn out to be their incredible strengths.
Be open to the things they do that are a normal part of their growth.
In the same way that as part of our growth and learning as parents we will get things spectacularly wrong, so too will our children. Small children are curious and self-centred. They were built that way to give them what they need to explore the world and what it all means for them. Teenagers might be hostile or indifferent to our influence and appear to deliberately push against us. This gives them what they need to let go of us enough to extend into the world, experiment with it, and find their own independent place.
The behaviours of theirs that we wrestle with as parents are often a normal part of them doing what they need to do to flourish and reach the next milestone. We don’t want to interrupt their exploring, experimenting and learning, which will easily happen if we shut them down by shaming them for age-appropriate behaviour. Kids will get it wrong, but rarely to do they do anything with the intention of disappointing us or disconnecting from us. They certainly never do it because they are ‘bad’.
Boundaries and strong limits on behaviour are really important for all kids. Even as adults we have boundaries around what’s acceptable and what’s not. What’s important is that they aren’t shamed for their sometimes awkward and often baffling reaches into growth and independence. This is important if they are to find their own voice, their own limits, learn about relationships, understand their impact, assert themselves with strength and grace, show empathy, and resist that which might compromise them.
Hold the ground steady through their intense emotion.
Strong emotion is often the result of the fight or flight part of their brain being activated. It’s a healthy, normal reaction of someone who is still learning how to respond to the world. These things take time to learn, and it’s important we give them the space and guidance to do that, without breaking them in the process. Crying, yelling and tantrums are all a part of them finding their limits, and feeling the edge of ours. Try to hear what they want you to know and let them know you get it, ‘I know you’re really angry at me for not letting you go to the party. I understand that. When you’re ready I’m here if you want to talk about it.’ I know it can take the patience and grace of a saint to stay calm, and I unashamedly admit that there have been times when I just haven’t had it in me. We all come with human limits and it never hurts for them to see ours. Whenever you can though, let them know you understand how they feel and talk about a better way to respond. When they feel as though you get it you’ll have a lot more influence on what comes next.
Vulnerability and courage – the antidote to shame.
Shame comes about when the words inside them are telling them that they aren’t good enough. It’s crippling and it shuts them down. The antidote to this are the words that tell them that they are good enough, brave enough, smart enough, kind enough, strong enough. The words will come from you. Acknowledge their vulnerability rather than trying to talk them out of it, because sadness, guilt, frustration are all real, and they’re all okay. ‘I understand you’re sad about the grade you got for maths. It’s okay to feel like that. Keep working hard and you’ll figure out what you need to do differently. You have it in you to be great at maths if you keep working at it.’
Understand the need that is being met.
Shaming squanders the opportunity for us to understand more about the needs of our children. Kids react for a reason – there is always something going on. Try to understand the need they are trying to meet through their behaviour. There will always be one. Are they receiving enough attention? Are they bored? Tired? Overscheduled? Hungry? Frustrated? Sad? Angry? Is there something else going on? There are so many reasons kids do the wrong thing and none of them have anything to do with them being bad people. It’s not about making excuses, it’s about taking the precious opportunity to understand them, connect with them, show them that we can be a strong, steady, comforting presence for them, and most importantly, teach them a better way to respond.
And when they do feel shame – which they will.
Encourage them to talk about their behaviour in terms of choices, and their mistakes in terms of learning. Ask them what they think of other people who make similar mistakes, and the possible reasons those people might make them. Help them to find healthier explanations for their behaviour than personal deficiency. This doesn’t let go of the need for personal responsibility – you’re not making excuses – but you are focusing on the learning rather than the mistake.
And finally …
Parenting is tough and there will be times we respond by releasing whatever words are perched on the edge of our tongue. We’re only human, and we all only have a limited capacity for patience and solid calm. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes. A slip up now and then won’t hurt them if the culture is one in which they are free to experiment, to get it wrong, and explore their behaviour without questioning their worth. We don’t want to crush their spirit, which might sometimes show itself as defiance or a fierce curiosity, because that spirit is building them into the creative, intelligent, amazing adults they will be one day.
When it comes to raising kids, we, as the adults who love them, want to preserve as much of our influence as possible for as long as possible. Shaming kids goes against this, and although it will modify behaviour when they are young enough to be under our control, there will quickly come a time when we have no control and our influence will rely completely on their connection with us. Shaming breaks that connection. It disempowers our kids and it disempowers us. The greatest thing we can do for our kids is anything that will flourish their potential and preserve their dignity, their spirit and their strong sense of self.