A five-month-old baby is lying in his mother’s arms. He is close to sleep, then wakes and begins to cry. His mother tells him that he should stop being a naughty boy, and that she will be 1)cross with him if he doesn’t sleep.
An 18-month-old child is taken to a restaurant with her father and uncle. Her father goes to the bar, leaving the child with the uncle at the table. The child gets down from the table to follow her father. She is grabbed by her uncle and told that she is a bad child, and to stay in her chair. She looks around worriedly for her father.
At an adult’s birthday party, a six-year-old is awake long past his bedtime. He is running around the hall with the 2)helium-filled balloons. His father yells at him to leave the balloons alone, and tells him to stop being a trouble-maker.
What did these children learn from these experiences? Many would say that the adults’ responses were necessary to teach the child the difference between right and wrong: between “good” and “bad” behavior. Shaming is one of the most common methods used to regulate children’s behavior. But what if shaming our children is harming our children?
Actually, shaming acts as a 3)pressure valve to relieve parental frustration. Shaming is an anger-release for the parent; it makes the shamer feel better—if only 4)momentarily.
When made to feel unworthy, children often work extra hard to please their parents. This makes the parent think that the shaming has “worked”. But has it?
Well-meaning adults can sometimes underestimate children’s sensitivity to shaming language. There is mounting evidence that some of the words used to scold children—household words previously thought “harmless”—have the power to 5)puncture children’s self-esteem for years to come.
A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves. A ten-year-old girl, for example, was overcome with anxiety after spilling a drink. She exclaimed over and over: “I’m so stupid! I’m so stupid!” These were the exact words her mother had used against her. She lived in fear of her parents’ judgment, and learned to shame herself in the same way that she had been shamed.
If children’s emotional needs are dismissed, if their experiences are 6)trivialized, they grow up feeling unimportant. If they are told that they are “bad” and “naughty”, they absorb this message and take this belief into adulthood.
Shame makes people feel diminished. It is the fear of being exposed and can lead to 7)withdrawal from relationships. Shaming creates a feeling of powerlessness to act and to express oneself: We want to dance, but we’re stopped by memories of being told not to be “so childish”. We seek pleasure, but we’re 8)inhibited by inner voices telling us we are “9)self-indulgent” or “lazy”. We strive to excel, or to speak out, but we’re held back by a suspicion that we are not good enough. Shame 10)takes the shape of the inner voices and images that mimic those who told us, “Don’t be stupid,” or “Don’t be silly!”
Thomas Scheff, a University of California sociologist, has said that shame inhibits the expression of all emotions—with the occasional exception of anger. People who feel shamed tend toward two11)polarities of expression: emotional 12)muteness and 13)paralysis, or bouts of hostility and rage. Some swing from one to the other.
Recent research tells us that shame motivates people to withdraw from relationships, and to become isolated. Moreover, the shamed tend to feel humiliated and disapproved of by others, which can lead to hostility, even fury. When angry, shamed individuals are more likely to be 14)malevolent, indirectly aggressive or self-destructive.
Many people are still convinced that 15)smacking or shaming is the only 16)antidote for preventing antisocial behaviors in children. The suggestion of giving up shaming or smacking is misinterpreted by some as an attempt to 17)disempower parents, to turn them into guilt-18)laden, ineffectual and 19)permissive 20)wimps. Not so. Effective and healthy boundaries can be set without resorting to violence or shaming. Being strong with children does not mean being harsh or humiliating.
There are alternatives to shaming that are healthier and more effective. Children who are shown consistent boundaries by parents who are able to express their feelings and needs in a trusting and respectful way, grow up with stronger self-worth and social awareness, free of the toxic effects of shame.