The Shame Game

We have all felt shame in our lives. Some of us more than others, and to degrees that vary greatly. Shame doesn’t feel good and doesn’t go away. It sticks in our psyche creating bigger problems, mainly perfectionism which I know a thing or two about for sure.

Mild shame is our everyday way of keeping us safe so we can do well with other humans. It works as a “clutch” to help us avoid public embarrassment . This clutch helps us to begin learning the ideas of self-regulation. We all know that kids are learning this on the regular. Every kid has talked too loud, ran in the restaurant or made some other minor social mistake only to find out that onlookers have noticed and are not pleased. This is mild shame which can be useful for learning some of life's lessons. But this does not need to come from us, the parents. Instead, by setting limits with empathy, we allow our child to create neural wiring leading a way for them to exercise the use of their “clutch”.

For instance, “ Wow I see you really love jumping on the couch. We don’t jump on our couch honey, but you can jump rope outside on the patio.” We set the kind loving limit without giving the impression that our child is somehow “bad” or “wrong.” We acknowledge that he wants to jump on the couch and that is a normal want, but we don’t allow that in our house. This way he

doesn’t think the things he wants to do are “bad” either. No child should ever feel they are “wrong” or “bad.” This mild shame gives a child room to grow and learn with kind limits.

Conversely, what if you said, “You know better than to jump on our couch, what is wrong with you? Can’t you just be good for one minute. Now go to time out.” What have we taught our child? He’s wrong, and he is too much work for his parent. He also may think the things he wants to do are bad and wrong as well.

Will this child that has been shamed want to cooperate with his mom and listen? Probably not, but he will end up in time out anyway. What will he learn there? Feel more shame? Act out of anger? Become rebellious? Has he learned to use his clutch and build new neural wiring to be able to switch gears?

No adult wants to shame children, but it’s what we do in our society and it is widely accepted. We scold, criticize, punish, lecture and belittle. Usually because those things were done to us, and, we see others acting this way toward children without a second thought.

I often wonder what it would be like if it were socially acceptable to shame adults like children are shamed in our society. Would it be cool to go up to someone you see who put recycling in the trash and say, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know that says recycling,  can’t you do anything right?” I wonder how upset that adult might become. And yet, we expect children to be spoken to in a that way and to take it, without responding. Moreover, we adults follow it up with a time out or some other punishment that creates more shame.  

We can’t allow our children to do things that are dangerous or that go against our house rules, but we can set limits with empathy and understanding which will determine how much shame our children will feel.

If we want our children to grow up to be kind, loving parents to our grandchildren, then we teach them now by modeling the behavior we want them to exhibit. Be a kind, loving parent who sets limits when necessary with empathy and compassion. If you do this, you will have kind, respectful, loving and compassionate children.