Let’s Talk Shame
We don’t even realize we’re using it to shape and manage a child’s behavior.
Shame has been used forever to shape the behavior of children and even adults. The problem with shame is, it’s insidious — a slow erosion of our greatest potential. It happens in subtle ways that we’re not acutely aware of until it manifests in multiple ways: low self-esteem, insecurity, fear, lack of trust in yourself and others, self-doubt, and the list goes on. I see it happen all the time. Shame has certainly affected me, both as a child and an adult.
I still struggle with the idea of making mistakes and how that will disappoint others. At times as a child, I would make benign mistakes that others harshly criticized. Constantly feeling afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing would paralyze me. Even in my adult years. It took a lot of self-awareness on my part to unpack what was happening. I’m definitely a work in progress, but now, I can find the language to identify shame and its impact.
The word shame is both a verb and a noun. In this article, I’m specifically discussing when shame is used as a verb. The definition of shame as a noun, according to the Oxford dictionary is: “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame as a noun, is a natural consequence and can present us with great lessons. In future posts I will discuss shame, the noun, because it’s important we teach ourselves and children the language and tools to work through this type of shame. Shame when used as a verb is defined as: “Making someone feel ashamed of a person, action or situation.”
The Covert Use of Shame
This is where it gets tricky. Shame is used in such a covert way; we often miss it. For example, let’s take a second-grade class learning a math lesson. A student starts talking to a classmate next to him, and the teacher stops to stare at him. That’s not where the shame lives. It’s when the teacher decides to wait until the entire class has joined in — and now everyone is staring. This is followed by a remark meant to humiliate and embarrass the child, especially now, since there’s a captive audience. It’s at this moment when shame is in play. To most people, this sounds benign and common. I’ve described this scenario to several school-age children and asked, “Have you ever experienced or observed this happen?” Every child says, “yes!”
Common Responses to Shame
“The child wasn’t doing what he was supposed to. He should feel bad.” Teachers and parents said these exact words These exact words after I shared this story. This is why shame is so pervasive. It’s easy to miss and we quickly justify it. As shame sneaks in, it tears at someone’s essence — we allow it to narrate the story in our heads. Another common response might be, “That’s what you get for not listening.” Again, I understand this parental response. I do not doubt the parent with this response is loving, attentive, and wants the best for their child. The problem is, we glaze right over the use of shame. In fact, you start to feel your own sense of shame because your child wasn’t listening.
Imagine you’re a classmate of the child who was stared down for talking. What is the experience doing to you? As a child, you’re probably grateful it’s not you who’s getting in trouble. Secondly, you realize if you were to make a mistake, it’s fair game for someone to embarrass or humiliate you. Guess where that leads — straight to fear and perfectionism. Not only has the use of shame negatively impacted our friend who was talking, but the ramifications have affected everyone. This is why shame is used often. It’s really powerful! Not only are we getting to the troublemaker, but hopefully everyone else will stay in line as a result.
It sends the message that when mistakes happen — because they do — it’s perfectly acceptable for you to be shamed and embarrassed by others. And we wonder why anxiety and the incessant need to be perfect is increasing in more of our children? Using shame is not the entirety of the problem — it is the permissible use of it.
Implementing PARR (Pause, Acknowledge, Respond, Reflect)
When learning their child talked out of turn, the knee jerk reaction of parents may be to say, “Why were you talking?” Think of how different your response would be if you took 5 seconds to pause. You would quickly realize that, you the parent, are feeling your own shame about your child’s choice to talk. It never sits well with us when our children make decisions that are out of alignment with our expectations. This will always induce feelings of shame in a parent. Once you acknowledge this, you know your response shouldn’t be influenced by your trigger or feelings of shame.
So what should you say? You respond:
It was probably really uncomfortable for you when everyone was staring. You should not have been made to feel embarrassed. Your choice to talk and your teacher’s reaction are two separate things. Let’s find the lesson here: When you choose to talk when it’s not your turn — you’re telling the other person that they don’t matter. You’re not exercising respect. Let’s not lose this opportunity to grow and learn.
Consider implementing a reinforcement plan to reduce your child’s talking in the classroom. Check out my post on collaborative discipline to come up with a fair reinforcement plan. Remember, you want to address the behavior. That does not mean you want to invite shame along. You can explain why the teacher felt frustrated. Make sure you address the choices and behavior. Don’t piggyback on the notion, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Lastly, when you reflect, consider whether your own shame played a role in your response. What unresolved shame do you have around the idea of making a bad or wrong choice? This is your opportunity to consider your personal growth through your child’s experience.
Creating Awareness Around Shame
Does this mean we abandon the idea of consequences when a child behaves in a way that’s not desired? Absolutely not — you must address the behavior! Don’t resort to using shame or excusing the adult who made your child feel ashamed in that moment. What’s worked well for me as a parent is separating the feelings of shame from the actual behavior. Acknowledge the feelings of shame, but don’t let it override or interfere with the learning that can take place. It’s important to have conversations about shame, so that our children can recognize it. The minute we create awareness around shame, it is spotted easily, and we reduce its impact. Having conversations and sharing our own experiences with shame will create a space for children to have a better understanding of it.
Here’s the sad part: The child in the example, who was made to feel small, will probably feel too ashamed to go home and say anything. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen countless times. One of the most important responsibilities I have as a parent and someone who works with kiddos is to inhibit shame and not give it the space to grow. Recognize it and try to do the same. Mistakes happen, being shamed for them does not have to. In Dr. Brene Brown’s shame research, she found that the biggest killer of innovation is perfectionism. Feeling shamed, even in subtle ways, will always result in perfectionism.
How has shame affected you? What did it look like when you were a child? How are you affected as an adult? Do you find yourself resorting to shame tactics as a parent to stop undesirable behaviors? I can’t wait to hear from you!
Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I explore different ways to address challenging behaviors without resorting to shaming.