Shaming and criticism have been part of parenting and “discipline” for generations, but when you stop to think about it, few people feel inspired, motivated, or open to new learning when they’re humiliated, discouraged, or embarrassed.
When I was a kid, many, many moons ago, “shame on you!” was a pretty normal thing to hear. Many parents, including my own, used guilt and shame to shape behavior, letting a child know that she was a big disappointment to the people she most wanted to please.
I used to wish I could disappear when I messed up, and I sometimes wonder what I actually decided in those moments. How might my behavior might have been different if my parents had a few more positive tools in their parenting toolbox?
As it turns out, the research on shame is pretty clear. Shame is never positive, and does not motivate kids to learn, to develop new skills, or to be resilient and willing to try again. Criticism, even when it’s intended to be “constructive”, isn’t helpful, either. So, what is shame, exactly?
Shame happens when one person—let’s say it’s a parent—makes another person—perhaps a child—feel bad not about something she did, but about who she is. Shame isn’t about behavior; shame is about who you are as a person. It cuts at the heart of self-worth and connection, and creates pain rather than learning. As one of my Positive Discipline colleagues says, shame tells you that you didn’t just make a mistake, you are a mistake.
Effective discipline involves teaching, not punishment. Most parents have figured out that punishment, hurting kids in the name of teaching them something, may get you a short-term change in behavior but doesn’t teach anything valuable for the long term. But shame is subtler than spanking. And many parents find shame hard to avoid because they grew up with it themselves. It must work, right?
Actually, no—it doesn’t. Shame and criticism are discouraging—and discouraged children are the ones who misbehave. Remember, the primary human need is for a sense of belonging and significance—what we call “connection” in Positive Discipline. Shaming someone breaks that connection, and more important, breaks trust. How can your child trust in you and do what you ask when your words make him feel small and worthless? You may have grown up with shame yourself, but trust me on this one: It isn’t helpful.
So what can parents do instead? Continue reading