For most parents, shame and parenting is a very touchy topic. The very word “shame” conjures up stories like the mom who bragged about selling her daughter’s concert tickets, or parents who make their kids wear shaming slogans on shirts and signs. And on the whole, most people seem to feel that public shaming by a parent leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
Historically, I think we all agree that shame has often been used in ways that are, well, shameful. For generations, society made people feel ashamed for things they could not control: because they were born in poverty, because they were the “wrong” race or sex, because they were struggling with mental illness or a disability. But shame has also been used to do great good – non-violent protest movements are essentially a way of shaming a whole society into doing the right thing.
So I, like most parents, have wrestled with this thought: aren’t there some things kids should be ashamed of? I myself have times that I feel what I would call “appropriate shame” – when I am mean and judgemental, for example, or when I lose control of my temper. This shame isn’t crippling; it doesn’t make me feel like a terrible person, inside and out, or affect me socially the way a child who is publicly shamed is affected, but it is a powerful motivation. The shame that I feel is a signal that I have made a decision I should not feel good about, and that makes me re-examine my thoughts and behaviour.
As a result, yes, I feel that shame can have a role in parenting. But obviously, I don’t feel that public shaming is the way to go. So I’ve spent time thinking about how I might make shame a parenting tool, and if I do so, how to make sure that I use it well – because like any tool, the result has much more to do with how I use it than the tool itself.
The first conclusion I’ve reached is that I have to make a distinction between “you should be ashamed” and “I am ashamed of you.” As an adult, my shame is in relation to a specific action: I was rude, I was prejudiced, I was unethical. But I am not ashamed of my self, the person that I am, just the action I took. Kids should never feel that their parent is ashamed of them.
Another critical point that “you should be ashamed” drives home is that shame is an internal response to making a poor decision. You should not be ashamed because I will share your picture on the Internet; you should be ashamed because what you did was wrong. The shame should emerge from an awareness of your mistake. External consequences are never as powerful as internal ones.
There is also a subtle difference between saying “you should be ashamed of yourself for bullying that girl” and “you should be ashamed of yourself”: being ashamed for bullying someone makes it clear to a kid what action was wrong, and how you would fix it. Once again, it’s not your self that is the problem: it is what you did. And what you did can often be corrected, both now (with an apology) and in the future (by not bullying someone else).
But to me, the most important thing of all is that my kids understand what justifies shame. If my son tries his hardest at math and only gets a C, should he be ashamed? No, of course not. In fact, he should be proud of that C; getting it took determination and a lot of hard work. But if my son refuses to do his work, disturbs other kids, and is rude to his teacher, he should be ashamed – even if he manages to get an A+. My daughter should not be ashamed if she walks out of a store with something in the cart she forgot, then rushes back in to pay for it …but if she steals something on a dare to impress a friend, shame should be a part of that experience.
What justifies shame to me? Cruelty. Disrespect. Stealing or cheating. Bullying someone, whether physically or verbally or on the Internet. If you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, you should be ashamed if you do it to someone else. Even failing to do a job to the best of your ability can be deserving of shame, depending on the context And the only thing that should soothe that shame is acting to correct your mistake, whether that means apologizing, returning what you took, or redoing a job because you can do it better.
Some people argue that what I’m describing is guilt – like many complex concepts, not everyone agrees on what exactly “shame” means. For some, shame requires at the very least a fear that what you did might be discovered – so, for example, stealing a CD when no one knows but you results in guilt, but not shame.
In response, I would say this: there is always another person who knows about what we have done. That person is our best self, the person we could be if we always made the right choices. Even if no other person discovers what I did, the person that I want to be always knows. To me, the goal of parenting is not just to get my children to adulthood; it’s to help them become empathetic, compassionate, and honorable people. By teaching my children about when they should feel ashamed, I hope that the people they grow up to be are a little bit closer to their best selves.
(photo: shpock/ Shutterstock)