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Shame On You

KindergartenStories of kids I tell here are often anonymous – children and parents or teachers I observe in my day-to-day life. Sometimes they are about friends and family members (with their permission).

This story is about me as a child, and about my mom, without her worldly permission, which is no longer possible.

As was common back then, in my 1950s-60s childhood, shame was a parenting tool Mom used regularly. You know about and have felt Shame, right? It’s a “painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” It’s the “I’m Wrong” and the “I’m Worthless” feeling. Its synonyms include mortification and embarrassment. A dear friend of mine with a background in drug and alcohol rehab identifies it is an acronym: S.H.A.M.E., for Should Have Already Mastered Everything.

As much as I loved my mother by the end of her life, I must own the reality that, when we were young, shame was one of a small set of her go-to discipline techniques. I don’t negatively judge her for it anymore, as she was doing the best she could with the tools she had. Like most parents, Mom was replicating the parenting of her own early childhood, unconscious of that source of her learning, and unaware of the negative long-term impacts on her children. Her parents shamed her, so she shamed us.

Whenever I didn’t do something, or did it badly, her response to tell me I was wrong was some version of, “Why did/didn’t you . . . ? or “You should/shouldn’t have . . . .” Often, the concluding words of either the question or the statement identified a “something” that was news to me! One classic:
Mom:“You should have laid out your school clothes for today last night, so you’d have found this rip then.”
Me: (in tiny, meek voice) ". . . okay . . . i’m sorry. . . ." ???????=look of deer in headlights or utter confusion
Me, today: “And I would have known to do that, at age nine, how, exactlly???” (No, she never demonstrated that or otherwise taught me to do it)

By the time I was 10, mortification was the best word to express my level of shame. When caught out as “wrong” or, even, uninformed, I felt as if my life was not worth living. I should die for being so foolish, so stupid. I used to hear the echo of Mom’s frequent statement, “Your awfully dumb sometimes, for a smart girl.”

Feeling wrong can still be followed by a flood of red-hot shame. Still, after all these decades, feeling “stupid” can be a trigger, sometimes. When that trigger is pulled, I leave behind my best self, lose my consciousness of my higher self. In the past, to avoid shame or get its jack-booted foot off my neck, I have lied to others and myself, or at least have laid on some pretty thick BS. I have likely hurt someone else at some point, maybe more than once. I would have been blind to my impact, focused desperately on leaping from the burning river of shame-lava within.

Mom’s invocation of shame, as a parenting technique, played a significant role in keeping me from mining my Childhood Treasures, especially Trust, Independence, and Vision. If you’d like to avoid that experience for the children you parent or teach, here are a half-dozen of my suggestions for alternatives to shame as a parenting tool:

  1. Shift the tone of your Why. Rather than ask a child why he did/didn’t do something in that authority tone of voice that expresses your disapproval or dissatisfaction, try a tone of voice that expresses your curiosity. Rather than, “OHMYGODWHYDIDYOUDOTHAT????”, with intensity of voice, eye, and body, how about trying, “Huh. Why did you do it like that?” First, assume there’s nothing wrong. Find your genuine calm and open curiosity to learn why someone else’s approach was so different from what you hoped for or expected. Put a smile on your face. Open up your heart and mind. Consider that this child may have a developmentally-linked rationale for what she did. Then, and only then, ask. Ask Why? like a curious puppy, rather than asking it like a lawyer circling a defendant.
  2. Replace Why? with other questions. Just don’t ask “Why?” at all. Again, from that place of genuine and open curiosity, loving this child’s uniqueness, ask any of these:
    • Hey (wide, warm smile), what happened here?
    • What did you think about or plan about this beforehand?
    • What were you hoping would happen? What happened instead?
    • What do you wish you’d thought of?
    • What can you see about the results of your choice?
  3. Invite strategizing. Assuming the child has identified some issues with his approach, ask, “Would you like to think ahead, and plan for a different strategy and outcome next time?”
  4. Encourage hypothesis testing. “You have two ideas that seem like they’ll work. Which one do you want to try first?” Then ask, “How will you know that it worked well?”
  5. See learning as a journey, not a point in time. Know that, just like us adults, children need to hear and experience new learnings over and over, through different contexts and modalities. Rather than expecting a child to learn a new skill or approach “in one,” know that the need for learning this skill or lesson will recur. A child’s learning – every time and all the time – is a marathon, not a sprint.
  6. Normalize error as part of learning, and learning as the point of life. This attitude, on your part, can be the framework for every interaction you have with children, as well as with other adults. Acknowledge to yourself and the children in your world that you are still a learner. Acknowledge that there is much that you don’t know, and that you make countless mistakes every week, if not every day. Put yourself in the child’s shoes and recognize that your feet still fit them. Let children know that you see learning as one commonalty we all share. Everyone is learning all the time . . . and learning usually means making mistakes. We can ALL see our mistakes as a source of information to advance our learning.

No shame in that!

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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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