Shame has long been wielded as a powerful tool to modify a child’s behavior. When made to feel unworthy, children will usually try harder to please their parents, giving the illusion that it’s “working,” but those feelings of worthlessness cause deep scars which can take a lifetime to heal.
Shame isn’t only common in abusive homes, but is generally an acceptable form of “discipline” in your average “nice” family. Shaming includes verbal comments such as “stop acting like a baby,” “you naughty child,” and “are you that stupid?” as well as the unfortunate trend in public shaming and social media humiliation.
The Developing Self-Concept
Self-concept is the image we hold of ourselves – of our abilities, our nature, qualities, and typical behavior. This is formed in our earliest years by what we hear about ourselves through those closest to us. In essence, children come to see themselves the way their parents and caregivers see them. Therefore, when they consistently get the message that they are “bad,” “naughty,” or “stupid” or that they “act like a baby,” that message is internalized.
Because self-concept determines behavior, children will act out how they feel inside. A child who believes himself to be bad will, therefore, exhibit bad behavior, often causing the parent to pile on more shame in an effort to control it. The cycle perpetuates.
The Easy Way Out
We have a habit of reducing children to nothing more than behavior, and we treat only the behavior we see rather than treating the human being behind the behavior. When we are focused on only treating behavior, we may be quick to dole out punishments or use shaming tactics to gain compliance. When we are focused on treating the human being, we are able to empathize, teach, and guide the child to better behavior. This is obviously a healthier approach, but it takes more time and effort.
Shaming is quick and often effective, so don’t be fooled into taking the easy way out. There is a valuable, worthy human being behind that behavior.
The Cost of Shame
Shame doesn’t diminish behavior; it diminishes the self. This may, in turn, affect behavior, but at what cost? According to Good Children – At What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame by Robin Grille and Beth McGregor, numerous studies link shame with the desire to punish others.
Shamed individuals are more likely to be aggressive and exhibit self-destructive behavior. Shame causes people to withdraw from relationships, to become isolated, and they compensate for deep feelings of shame with attitudes of superiority, bullying, self-deprecation, or obsessive perfectionism. When shame has been severe, it can contribute to mental illness.
Instead of Shaming
There are plenty of ways to teach children without attacking or humiliating them.
- Discipline through play. During play, children’s brains are very receptive. This is an opportune time to teach boundaries and appropriate behavior.
- Try these alternatives to punishment. They work!
- Give consequences that teach, not shame. Allow natural consequences when appropriate and utilize problem-solving skills to determine what the child needs to be taught in order to do better. If a consequence is necessary, it should be related and delivered with the intent to teach, not to make the child feel bad about himself.
- Discipline with connection in mind. Understanding that calm, connected children absorb information best is important to changing from a punitive mindset to connection-based discipline.
Join the Movement to End Child Shaming
A group of advocates have created a call to action to stop the shaming of children. Every voice counts, and children need your voice. Please visit www.stopshamingkids.com and sign the petition to end shaming on social media. Our children deserve our protection. In order to raise emotionally healthy people, we must stop shaming now.