A Shift in Attitude: Respecting the Child

This is Part Two of “Good” Children – At What Price?  The Cost of Shame.  Read Part One here. 

For more on how to Stop Listening to Shame as an adult, watch Brene Brown’s viral video here.

By Robin Grille and Beth McGregor

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?

Sometimes what we condemn as ‘misbehaviour’ is simply the child’s attempt to have some need met in the best way they know, or to master a new skill. The more parents can accept this, the less they are tempted to shame children into growing up faster. For instance, it is normal for toddlers to be selfish, possessive, exuberant and curious. It is not unusual for two-year-olds to be unable to wait for something they want, as they don’t understand time the way adults do. It is quite ordinary for three year-olds to be sometimes defiant or hostile. If we shame instead of educate, we interrupt a valuable and stage-appropriate learning process, and our own opportunity to learn about the child’s needs is lost.

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 infant 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 childhooddevelopment. 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

Is it possible to understand what motivates children when they are ‘behaving badly’, instead of shaming them? What might ‘bad’ behaviour be a reaction to?

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 judgment 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

Parents often do to their children as was done to them. It is known that violence can be passed down across generations. Many parents realise that they are perpetuating a cycle in which they are shaming their children, in the same ways that they were once shamed by their own parents. Those that have forgotten the sting and humiliation of being shamed, risk being insensitive to the shame they inflict on their own children. Change requires deepening one’s empathy toward the child, and this comes from remembering how it felt to be a child. The understanding that comes from seeing the world through a child’s eyes can help adults to influence children without shaming them. 

Managing Emotions 

As parents, it is not unusual to find ourselves struggling, frazzled, or nearing an emotional boiling point. When we don’t find healthy ways to discharge this frustration, we risk taking it out on our children.  Although irritation is a normal part of parenting this is not because children are ‘too demanding’. Children are children, and the fact that child-rearing can be difficult is not their fault.

There are many ways to re-route our excess anger, such as screaming into a pillow, chopping some wood, going for a walk, or talking our frustration through with friends.

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. 

WHAT DO WE DO NOW? A New Paradigm for Boundary Setting

Respectful boundary-setting implies a strong statement about you, as opposed to a negative statement about the child. In this way, children gradually develop a good capacity to hear and comprehend the feelings of others.

Children benefit from open expression of emotions; from seeing when their parents are angry, or upset. It is OK to be angry with your children, to let them see you are annoyed at something they have done, (as long as you don’t shock or terrorise them). Children learn best when they can see the kind of impact that their behaviour has on the feelings of others.

Finally, it helps children to listen to and respect your feelings, if their right to express their feelings is equally respected. 

Re-directing the Child’s Impulses 

From time to time we are compelled to intervene in our child’s activity, when we fear that either a person or a treasured object might get hurt. Shaming can be avoided if, instead of just chastising or stopping the child, we also provide a safer, alternative activity. For instance, occasional aggression is part of normal, balanced healthy development. Children are often shamed and punished for this, when instead they could be shown ways to channel their natural aggression safely.

Sometimes it is important to re-evaluate whether we need to chastise at all. A guideline comes from considering whether the behaviour in question is actually causing harm to anyone, or creating a concrete risk. 

The Role Model 

Role-modelling is the most powerful teaching tool. Children don’t do what you say; they do as you do. The kind of respect they show others and themselves is a reflection of the kind of respect they have themselves been shown – and the respect they have witnessed displayed between the important people in their lives. Are we role-modeling the kind of behaviour that we want our children to display? 


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.

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