A five month old baby is lying in his mother's arms. He is close to sleep, then wakes and begins to grizzle. His mother tells him that he should stop being a naughty boy, and that she will be 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 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' behaviour. Verbal punishment is common in almost every home and school. It relies on shame as the deterrent, in the same way that corporal punishment relies on pain. Shaming is one of the most common methods used to regulate children's behaviour. But what if shaming our children is harming our children? Could it be that repeated verbal punishment leaves children with an enduring sense of themselves as inherently 'bad'? If so, what can we do differently
What is 'shame'?
What does Shaming look and sound like?
How common is shaming?
As parents we tend to resort to shaming when we feel overwhelmed, irritated or frustrated, and we feel the need to control our children. Until very recently little consideration has been given to its harmful effects.
Shame: a new frontier of psychological study
Daniel Goleman (author of 'Emotional Intelligence') says that we are now discovering the role that shame plays in relationship difficulties and violent behaviour. There is a new effort by psychologists to study shame, how it is acquired, and lastly, how it affects a person's relationships and functioning in society. The study of this previously 'ignored emotion' is such a new frontier because it is the most difficult emotion to detect in others. Dr Paul Eckman, from the University of California, says that shame is the most private of emotions, and that humans have yet to evolve a facial expression that clearly communicates it. Is this why we might not see when our children are suffering from this secret emotion?
Is there a place for shame?
How shame is acquired
This means that wherever there is shame, there has been a shamer. We learn to be ashamed of ourselves because someone of significance in our lives put us to shame. Shaming messages are more powerful when they come from those we are closest to, from people we love, admire or look up to. That is why parents' use of shaming can have the deepest effects on children. However, shaming messages from teachers, older siblings and peers can also injure children's self-image. Since children are more vulnerable and impressionable than adults, shaming messages received in childhood are significantly more difficult to erase.
Messages of shame are mostly verbal, but there can be great shaming power in a look of disdain, contempt, or disgust.
Why is shaming so common?
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?
SO, WHAT IS WRONG WITH SHAMING?
To understand the damage wrought by shame, we need to look deeper than the goal of 'good' behaviour. If we think that verbal punishment has 'worked' because it changed what the child is doing, then we have dangerously limited our view of the child to the behaviours that we can see. It is all too easy to overlook the inner world of children; the emotions that underlie their behaviour, and the suffering caused by shame. It is also easy to miss what the child does once out of range of the shamer!.
Even 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 puncture children's self-esteem for years to come. Children'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' judgement, 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 trivialised, 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 a fear of being exposed; and leads to 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 inhibited by inner voices telling us we are '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 takes the shape of the inner voices and images that mimic those who told us 'don't be stupid', or 'don't be silly'!
Shame restrains children's self-expression: having felt the sting of an adult's negative judgement, the shamed child censors herself in order to escape being branded as 'naughty' or 'bad'. Shame crushes children's natural exuberance, their curiosity, and their desire to do things by themselves.
Thomas Scheff, a sociologist at the University of California, has said that shame inhibits the expression of all emotions - with the occasional exception of anger. People who feel shamed tend toward two polarities of expression: emotional muteness and paralysis, or bouts of hostility and rage. Some swing from one to the other.
Like crying for sadness, and shouting for anger, most emotions have a physical expression which allows them to dissipate. Shame doesn't. This is why the effects of shame last well into the long term.
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. Numerous studies link shame with a desire to punish others. When angry, shamed individuals are more likely to be malevolent, indirectly aggressive or self-destructive. Psychiatry lecturer, Dr Peter Loader, says that people cover up or compensate for deep feelings of shame with attitudes of contempt, superiority, domineering or bullying, self-deprecation, and obsessive perfectionism.
Severe shame and mental illness.
While shaming has the power to control behaviour, it does not have the power to teach empathy. When we repeatedly label a child 'naughty' or otherwise, we condition them to focus inwardly, they become pre-occupied with themselves and their failure to please. Thus children learn to label themselves, but learn nothing about relating; about considering or comprehending the feelings of others. For empathy to develop, children need to be shown how others feel. In calling children 'naughty', for example, we have told the child nothing about how we feel in response to their behaviour. Children cannot learn about caring for others' feelings, nor about how their behaviour impacts on others, while they are thinking: 'there is something wrong with me'. In fact, psychotherapists and researchers are finding that individuals who are more prone to shame, are less capable of empathy toward others, and more self-preoccupied.
The only true basis for morality is a deeply felt empathy toward the feelings of others. Empathy is not necessarily what drives the 'well-behaved' 'good boy' or 'good girl'.
The myth of morality.
Shame varies among cultures and families: what is considered shameful in one place may be permissible, un-remarkable, even desirable in another. What is called 'naughty behaviour' is usually arbitrary and subjective: it varies significantly from family to family.
In one family, nudity is acceptable, in another unthinkable. Being noisy and boisterous is welcome in one family, frowned upon in another. While one family might enjoy speaking all at once around the dinner table, another family might find this rude. Such examples help us to realise that our way is not the only way: that our own way of deciding what is shameful behaviour can be arbitrary and variable.
The History of Shaming
This way of thinking about children has persisted into modern times, although in less extreme ways. For example, a child having a tantrum is often seen as 'spoilt', and deliberately trying to antagonise his parents. A crying child risks being described as a 'little terror' or 'whinger' who is 'just trying to get attention'.
There is no question that parenting can be frustrating sometimes. But it is groundless to automatically assume that the child is out to upset us, or to attribute some kind of nasty intention to the child. This imagined malevolence is usually what underlies the impulse to shame children.
It is entirely possible to set strong boundaries with children without shaming. However, this requires a fundamental attitude shift, beginning with re-evaluating what we think is motivating our children's behaviour.
Children have a natural desire to develop a social conscience. When treated with the same respect as adults, and exposed to adults who respect each other; children will naturally develop a capacity for empathic, caring and respectful behavior.
'Misbehaviour' - or developmental stage?
A three year-old who defies her mother by refusing to pack up her toys - after being told to do so repeatedly - may be attempting to forge a separate and distinct self-identity. This includes learning to exercise her assertiveness, and learning to navigate open conflict. Toddlers can be exasperating. But does this mean they're 'misbehaving'?
Strong limits are essential, but if children are shamed for their fledgling and awkward attempts at autonomy, they are prevented from taking a vital step to maturity and confidence. In the period glibly called the 'terrible twos', and for the next couple of years, toddlers are discovering how to set their own boundaries. They are learning to assert their distinct individuality, their sense of will. This is critical if they are to learn how to stand up for themselves, to feel strong enough to assert themselves, and to resist powerful peer pressures later in life. If we persist in crushing their defiance, and shaming children into submission, we teach them that setting boundaries for themselves is not okay.
Even babies are thought to misbehave, such as when they don't sleep when they are told to. How could a five month old child, for example, possibly be 'naughty' for failing to go to sleep? Though it's difficult for parents when babies experience disturbed sleep, it is nonsensical to see a non-sleeping baby as 'disobeying' the parent, and to blame the baby for this.
Consider the example of an eight month-old who crawls over to something which has flashing lights and interesting sounds. He pulls himself up to it and begins to explore. He does not know that it is his father's prized stereo. He finds himself being tapped on his hand by his mother, who tells him to stop being naughty. He cries. At eight months, a baby is unable to tell the difference between a toy and another's valuable property, and would be incapable of self-restraint if he could. Children's ceaseless curiosity - a frequent target for shaming - is what drives them to learn about the world. When children's exploration is encouraged in a safe way, rather than castigated, their self-confidence grows. Unfortunately, we frequently call a behaviour which may be entirely stage-appropriate 'naughty', simply because it threatens our need for order, or creates a burden for us.
A flustered mother and her distraught four year-old daughter emerge from a local store. The girl is sobbing as she is forcefully strapped into her stroller. 'Stop it, you whinger!' screams the mother, as she shakes her finger in the little girl's face. Children are often berated for simply crying. Many people believe that a crying baby or child is misbehaving. Strong expressions of emotion - such as anger and sadness - are children's natural way of regulating their nervous system, while communicating their needs. Children cry when they are hurting, and they have a right to express this hurt! Even though it is often hard to listen to, it must be remembered that it is a healthy, normal reaction that deserves attention. It is tragic to see how often children are shamed for crying.
Here's a further example of what happens when we are unaware of developmental norms. Until recently, toddlers were started on potty-training far too early, before they were organically capable of voluntary bowel control. Many found this transition to be a battle, and toddlers were commonly shamed and punished for what was a normal inability. What was once a struggle both for parents as for children has been greatly alleviated through more accurate information about childhood development. Shaming often takes place when we try to encourage or force a behaviour that is developmentally too early for the child's age.
We have come a long way in our understanding about child development in recent decades, and made many advances in childcare as a result. Easy-to-read child-development books fill the stores, by authors such as Penelope Leach and William Sears, and these can help parents to have reasonable expectations of their children. Children and parents are both happier when parents have 'reasonable' expectations of the children.
Understanding instead of shaming.
When we don't seek to understand children's bad behaviours, we risk neglecting their needs. For instance, sometimes children repeatedly behave aggressively - over and above what can normally be expected of children their age. This could be due to conflict in the home, bullying at school, or competition with a sibling. Often what we expediently label as 'bad' behaviour, is a vital signal that the child in question might actually be hurting. Research has repeatedly shown that a consistent pattern of antisocial behaviours, for example hostility and bullying, are children's reactions to having felt victimised in some way. Children often 'act out' their hurts aggressively, when they have not found a safe way to show that they have been hurt.
Ironically, shame itself can be the underlying cause of difficult behaviour. Since shaming is a judgement from someone with more power than the child, this makes the child feel small and powerless. Sometimes, children turn the tables: they reclaim this lost power by finding another person to push around - usually someone smaller or more vulnerable than themselves.
Children are usually highly sensitive to the 'vibes' in their environment, they pick up tensions between their parents, or other family members. At times 'naughty' behaviour may be the child's way of reacting to this tension.
Kids are less given to act out when they are receiving enough attention, when their hunger for play, discovery and pleasurable human contact is satisfied. Provocative behaviour can indicate boredom, or perhaps the need for another 'dose' of juicy engagement with someone who is not feeling irritable, someone who has the time and energy to spare.
Finally, children can be grumpy or 'difficult' simply from over-tiredness. In this case, what is dismissed as 'bad' behaviour might be a child's way of saying 'I'm over the edge, and I can't handle it'. Curiously enough, when we as parents react with verbal assaults, we are communicating the same thing. Isn't yelling at children that they are 'naughty' or 'terrible' (or worse) a kind of adult tantrum, a dysfunctional adult way of coping with frustration?
It is worth remembering that some causes of 'misbehaviour' are a lot less obvious. For instance, children need to feel our strength, they are uncomfortable with weakness in our personal boundaries. They need exposure to our true feelings, and they sense when we are hiding or pretending. They need their feelings and opinions validated, and are highly sensitive to poor empathy. Frequently, they react to any of these conditions by becoming provocative. Sometimes we blame and shame children for their vexing behaviour, because the causes are hard to see.
Cultivating empathy: through remembering.
Everyone's capacity for loving patience is finite; that's human. When parents experience excessive strain this is largely due to our adherence to this myth: that it takes just two parents to raise a child. Our society has grossly underestimated the energy required to truly meet children's needs. We can avoid shaming simply by sharing the load - by asking for, and accepting, practical help from trusted friends and community. When we hear ourselves shaming our children, we might take this as a sign that we are needing more assistance.
A new paradigm for boundary setting:
Many people are still convinced that smacking or shaming are the only antidotes for preventing antisocial behaviours in children. The suggestion of giving up shaming or smacking is misinterpreted by some as attempts to dis-empower parents; to turn them into guilt-laden, ineffectual and permissive wimps. Not so. The most 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 - which are healthier and more effective. Children who are shown consistent boundaries by parents who are able to express their feelings and needs, grow up with stronger self-worth and social awareness, free of the toxic effects of shame.
Bradshaw, J (1988) Healing The Shame That Binds You
Gilbert P & Gerlsma C (1999) 'Recall of Shame and Favouritism in Relation to Psychopathology' The British Journal of Clinical Psychology Vol 38 p.357-373
Goleman D (1995) Emotional Intelligence - Why it can Matter more than IQ, Bantam Books New York Toronto
Kaufman G (1989) The Psychology of Shame - Theory and Treatment of Shame-based Syndromes Springer-Verlag New York
Loader P (1998) 'Such a Shame - A Consideration of Shame and Shaming Mechanisms in Families' Child Abuse Review Vol 7 p.44-57
Solomon CR & Serres F (1999) 'Effects of Parental Verbal Aggression on Children's Self-Esteem and School Marks' Child Abuse & Neglect Vol (23)4 p.339-351
Tangney JP & Fischer KW (1995) The Self-Conscious Emotions - The Psychology of Guilt, Embarrassment, and Pride The Guilford Press New York London
Robin Grill is a Sydney-based psychologist. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and relationship counselling.
Beth Macgregor is a psychologist, and an adult educator in the fields of child protection and child development. She is a member of the NSW Committee of the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health.
See Robin Grille's Fundamentalism: A War Against Children (9-page PDF)
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