“Good” Children – At What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame

This is part one of two.  Read part two, A Shift in Attitude: Respecting the Child 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

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?

Shame is designed to cause children to curtail behaviour through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. It involves a comment – direct or indirect – about what the child  is. Shaming operates by giving children a negative image about their  selves – rather than about the impact of their behaviour.

What Does Shaming Look and Sound Like?

Shaming makes the child wrong for feeling, wanting or needing something. It can take many forms.  Here are some everyday examples:

The Put-down: ‘You naughty boy!’, ‘You’re acting like a spoilt child!’, ‘You selfish brat!’, ‘You cry-baby!’.  

Moralising:  ‘Good little boys don’t act that way’, ‘You’ve been a bad little girl’. 

The Age-based Expectation: ‘Grow up!’, ‘Stop acting like a baby!’, ‘Big boys don’t cry!’ 

The Gender-based Expectation:  ‘Toughen-up!’, ‘Don’t be a sissy!’ 

The Competency-based Expectation: ‘You’re hopeless!’

The Comparison:  ‘Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?’, ‘None of the other kids are acting like you are’.

How Common is Shaming? 

Shaming is very common, and is considered by many to be acceptable. Shaming is not restricted to ‘abusive’nfamilies, in fact it occurs in the ‘nicest’ of family and school environments. A recent study of Canadian schoolchildren, for instance, found that only 4% had not been the targets of their parents’ shaming; including “rejecting, demeaning, terrorising, criticising (destructively), orinsulting statements”.

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 

The use of corporal punishment against children has been hotly debated, and under increasing negative scrutiny in recent years. More and more nations legislate against it, schools ban it,international organisations devoted to its elimination are proliferating, and research psychologists have amassed mountains of evidence of its long-term damaging effects. In the meantime, the issue of ‘shaming’ as punishment has been largely overlooked. Only recently have  psychologists begun to discover that shaming has serious repercussions.

Daniel Goldman (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? 

It’s not that shame is always undesirable, but that shaming is used too much, and usedinappropriately. In his book Healing The Shame That Binds You, theologian and psychotherapist John Bradshaw suggests that ‘healthy shame’ comes from being clearly shown the impact that our actions have on our relationships – it doesn’t come from being called names like ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’.

Shame can have a healthy role for those who are old enough to be fully responsible for their actions.

For instance, teenage or adult offenders cannot be rehabilitated unless they feel genuine shame for their offences.

How Shame is Acquired 

No one is born ashamed. It is a learned, self-conscious emotion, which starts at roughly two years of age with the advent of language and self-image. Although humans are born with a capacity for shame, the propensity to become ashamed in specific situations is learned. 

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?

Shaming acts as a pressure valve to relieve parental frustration. Shaming is anger-release for the parent, it makes the shamer feel better – if only 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?

SO, WHAT IS WRONG WITH SHAMING? The Damaging Effects of Shame 

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’ 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 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 judgment, 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

When shaming has been severe or extreme, it can contribute to the development of mental illness. This link has been underestimated until now. Researchers are increasingly finding connections between early childhood shaming and conditions such as Depression, Anxiety, Personality Disorders, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In his book, The Psychology of Shame, Gershen Kaufman, PhD, goes further to assert a link between shaming and addictive disorders, eating disorders, phobias and sexual dysfunction.

WHY SHAMING DOESN’T WORK: Shame Doesn’t Teach About Relationship or Empathy 

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  w e 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 

We are naïve to confuse shame-based compliance with morally motivated behaviour. At best, repeated shaming leads to a shallow conformism, based on escaping disapproval and seeking rewards. The child learns to avoid punishment by becoming submissive and compliant. The charade of ‘good manners’ is not necessarily grounded in real interpersonal respect.

DECONSTRUCTING SHAME: What Should We Consider Shameful?

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

Children have been shamed for many hundreds of years. Historically, they have been thought to be inherently antisocial, and their behaviour was seen through this lens. One seventeenth century author wrote: “the newborn babe is full of the stains and pollution of sin, which it inherits from our first parents through our loins”. In the Middle Ages, the ritual of Baptism actually included the exorcism of the devil from the child. Children who were felt to be too demanding were thought to be possessed by demons. Some early church fathers declared that if a baby cried more than a little, she was committing a sin. It has been an age -old tradition to blame the child for the numerous challenges and difficulties encountered by parents.

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.

Read Part 2, A Shift in Attitude: Respecting the Child

  1. twinmum says

    THIS is the kind of reading that should be included with the reams of ‘useful’ information that they load new mums and dads up with!

  2. Irene says

    Here! Here!! It wouldn’t go astray to include it with the reams of the (not-so) ‘useful’ information that they load new teachers up with, either!!

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