Shaming Your Kids Is Not Always A Bad Thing

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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)

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  1. Samantha Escobar

    September 8, 2014 at 10:25 am

    I personally love shaming of all sorts (well, besides fat shaming and slut shaming and ones along those lines). Here at our office, we tend to abuse the term “shaming” quite a bit (ex.: “salad shaming” is when you make fun of what a person puts on her salad, etc.).

    However! In all seriousness, I agree with you, and I think people–including children–should learn when and how to go about feeling ashamed. Rather than “this is what’s wrong with you” it’s “this is what’s wrong with your behavior,” so the kid thinks “I need to change this behavior” rather than “I’m a terrible person.” I shamed an adult just last weekend on the train for playing music from his phone without headphones, which is disruptive and rude. And he was embarrassed, as he should have been. Tada! Shame.

    • Hally Nicole Yust

      September 8, 2014 at 10:35 am

      You look depressed.

    • guest

      September 8, 2014 at 10:43 am

      Why are you using that picture and name?

    • Hally Nicole Yust

      September 8, 2014 at 11:08 am

      To educate people. Did you learn anything?

    • guest

      September 8, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      You are using a name and picture of a deceased little girl and you have a gore site listed on your profile. I’m not clicking on it and no I didn’t learn anything.

    • Hally Nicole Yust

      September 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm

      Lost cause.

    • Samantha Escobar

      September 8, 2014 at 10:59 am

    • Hally Nicole Yust

      September 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Don’t know how you could be with a face and skin like that.

    • Maria Guido

      September 8, 2014 at 11:33 am

      I think I have to make this my screen saver.

    • Lt, Ft

      September 8, 2014 at 10:39 am

      I agree with this and the author. Shame is an appropriate response for some behaviors. As long as it is specifically about the behavior, I’m all for it. I cut school when I was in middle school (went to a friend’s house for an all-day session of

      SNES and Lucky Charms) and when I was caught my parents expressed their disappointment and told me I should be ashamed of my behavior. I got the same lecture from aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Ugh, that was a long day and I felt horrible, which I should have.

      I didn’t cut again until high school and I was more savvy by that time.

  2. wispy

    September 8, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Am I the only one who is sick of the whole “shame” thing? I’d be glad to never hear the word again in my life. It’s the humiliation that I hate about the “public shaming” thing people do with their kids. It’s like they’re not even attempting to “shame” their kids because if that was the goal they wouldn’t have to do it publicly. They just want to humiliate them and get their point across that way, and get some pats on the back from the general public.

    • ChelseaBFH

      September 8, 2014 at 11:03 am

      I think a lot of people confuse “shame” and “humiliation.” But there’s a big difference – humiliation is a lot more public, and you can embarrass a kid publicly without them understanding what they did is wrong, or wanting to change their behavior for any reason other that to avoid the punishment. On the flip side, it’s possible to teach a kid to feel shame about their actions without embarrassing them. I think of shame as being embarrassed in front of yourself, rather than embarrassed in front of other people – which is, of course, a lot harder to teach and instill in kids. It’s much easier to just throw up a Facebook post and let the world punish your kid for you!

    • wispy

      September 8, 2014 at 2:30 pm


    • Katherine Handcock

      September 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      Very true! That’s why sometimes it’s such a drag to do the right thing – it’s so much harder than being a jerk to your kid 😉

  3. Maria Guido

    September 8, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I think you make so many good points here – I too have been turned off by the word because of all of the public shaming (which I HATE) – but you are right. There is definitely away to incorporate it to help raise a more aware child.

  4. jendra_berri

    September 8, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Shame is normal. Shame encompasses what you think other people think about you. Guilt is about what you think about yourself.
    For example, if you feel like other people are judging your parenting, you may feel ashamed of doing X,Y,Z. If you think you’re letting your kid down, you feel guilty. Guilt and shame are cousins. Sometimes they both happen at the same time.
    When I was a kid, I ripped up an invitation to an unpopular child’s party. The teacher shamed me publicly for it. I felt terrible and never did anything like that again. I felt both guilt and shame.
    When I was a small child, I was tantruming in the grocery store. Can’t remember why. My mom leaned down and told me I was embarrassing myself and everyone was looking at me. Then she walked off. I looked around, saw everyone was indeed looking at me. I scurried up and that was the end of public tantrums (Private tantrums chugged on normally). To my mom I say well played. But no guilt there, just shame.

    • SWstudent

      September 10, 2014 at 9:06 am

      Shame and guilt are cousins, but my understanding of them is different from yours (and KH’s).

      Guilt is feeling bad about something you did. This, I agree, can definitely be a good thing sometimes.

      Shame is feeling bad about who you are. Shame is never good.

      Dr. Brené Brown did an amazing TED Talk on shame & vulnerability:

  5. Diana

    September 8, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Shame is healthy emotion if you’ve been behaving like an asshole!

    • jendra_berri

      September 8, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

  6. mikoda

    September 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Shaming is healthy because it helps us control the balance between our id, ego, and superego. It guides us away from risky behavior.

  7. GPMeg

    September 8, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    I’m so glad there are parents thinking about this! Several years ago I lost a family (as in, they left my program!) because the mother said we were bullying her daughter by not yelling at kids who were “shaming” her. The daughter was the WORST. Literally ALL of our rules about trading, giving gifts, money, stealing, and possession were because of her. And she gave zero shits about any punishment we doled out. The only thing she cared about was other kids saying things like, “You better double check your pockets — K just left the room!”

    At a certain point, we couldn’t say anything — she stole something every time she was in a room! And her mother didn’t want to discipline her! Instead, she pulled her daughter and called the state to report our facility. When DFCS showed up, I explained everything and they talked to a couple of kids, and the woman told me she was tired of dealing with BS stuff like this since the day before a child had died in a van somewhere else.


  8. Alison

    September 8, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    My 2 year old fat-shamed me today. I had a baby 5 months ago and my belly still looks like a deflated balloon. She grabbed my chub and said “Mamma has a chubby belly like Santa Claus.” I will start weight watchers on Monday!

  9. jane

    September 8, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    When my daughter was about 3, she was full on in tantrum mode. It was awful. Throwing herself on the floor (thankfully, never in public) screaming, wailing, the whole 9 yards. One day I decided to record her doing it. The next day, when she was calm, I said to her “I want you to see something” and I showed her the video. I said “this is what you look like when you are having a temper tantrum like that.” She was horrified. She never threw a tantrum like that again. I never posted it online, I never showed anyone else. I just showed her behavior that was unacceptable and she should be ashamed of. And she was. Huge win. I’m a big fan of shame.

  10. Simone

    September 9, 2014 at 5:38 am

    If I recall my developmental psych correctly, shame has an important function in the development of empathy. It is part of learning that others have a distinct response to one’s own behaviour, helping to develop theory of mind – the understanding that the minds of others are separate and distinct from our own. If you’ve never felt shame, or been prompted to recognise shame as an emotion, you don’t really understand that your behaviour is evaluated by others in the tribe, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively.

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