Your response to your children’s behavior can induce feelings of shame or guilt. For example, let’s imagine your child grabs a toy from another child. Your response will affect what your child feels:
- Shame: You slap your child’s hand scolding “You are bad!” and return the toy to the other child.
- Guilt: You explain “Sam was still using the shovel when you took it. What can you do to make this better?”
How about the situation where your child knows he needs to get his homework done before playing any video games. You see that he’s playing video games and his homework isn’t done.
- Shame: You yell “Shut that thing off! You know better than to be playing video games when your homework isn’t done!”
- Guilt: You ask “What is our agreement about playing video games and homework?”
Feeling guilty can light your children’s internal desire to be truer to their better selves. Feeling shame is likely to fuel poor behavior choices because it damages your children’s belief that they can do better.
How are kids shamed? Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples.
- Yelling at kids “You are a bad boy/girl!”
- Threatening kids that they are going to put up for adoption
- Forcing kids to hold a sign in public stating things like “I am a thief. Do not trust me.”
- Cutting a child’s hair in a way that encourages others to make fun of that child
- Hitting a child including paddling kids at school where it is legal in 19 states
- Telling a child he or she is a loser, lazy, stupid, liar, fat, ugly
- Posting videos or pictures of kids online with the purpose of shaming them
- Letting your kids know that they need to achieve a certain level of success to be a worthy member of your family (e.g. earn a PhD, become a politician, doctor, lawyer)
- Suspending a child from school (underlying message is that you are so bad, we don’t even want you here)
Adults who shame children were likely shamed themselves as children. However, this is not a valid reason for using shame. If you’re not sure how to respond to your kids’ behavior without using shame, you can learn positive alternatives in Priceless Parenting’s online parenting classes
Considering the Link Between Shame and Suicide
Tragically there are plenty of examples of kids whose experience of shame has contributed to their decision to commit suicide. This shame may have come from parents, teachers, peers or other adults.
A 13-year-old girl
from Tacoma, Washington jumped from a bridge to her death on the freeway below. A day earlier her father had posted a video of him cutting her hair as punishment for not listening to him. While this wasn’t the only shaming thing he did to her, it was the last thing he did.
Publicly shaming kids by posting videos or pictures online is harmful. When something appears online, your kids feel the whole world knows and it’s devastating.
Sometimes kids unintentionally set themselves up for shaming by their peers by sharing nude photos of themselves. Talk to your kids about how easily a picture they send to one person can be passed around. Discuss how they’d feel if that happened.
Your words and actions have tremendous power over your children. Use them wisely and lovingly.