“Shame on you.” It’s how we were parented, but it’s not how we should be parenting.
As a kid I got shamed a lot when I did something wrong. Not only when I did something wrong, but when I genuinely felt scared or sad I was shamed and told “I‘ll give you something to cry about” as if my reasons for being emotional weren’t good enough.
Sure, my old man’s shaming approach worked. I listened to my Dad. I was afraid of him. His dirty look and tone had me scared. I did what he said because fear and shame felt so awful, and I didn’t want more of his intensity. And, his low-grade subtle form of shaming made me tough on the outside. And in doing so, it successfully covered up the profound sensitivity on the inside. I had to bottle up my vulnerability because my family had no room for it.
Why couldn’t they hang with all of me? Because my mom and dad couldn’t embrace their own sensitivity or vulnerability. That’s how it works.
Strangely, when I confronted my dad as an adult, his response was very telling. He said something like “yeah, but it worked.” In other words, he (and probably many men in his generation) still believes that shame is a good tool when raising a boy. This is the boy-code in full effect.
My old man kicked ass in a lot of ways, and he came up short in a lot of ways. He wasn’t emotionally available and had no tools in this area so he couldn’t help me with my sensitivity and vulnerability. When we talked about it, it was clear his vulnerable side had been ignored and squashed when he was a boy. As an adult, he never did any personal work, so it never changed.
When we parents are unable or unwilling to work with our own emotions and hurt places, we will act out with our kids. Typically we will try to shut down our kid’s experience first, instead of acknowledging that we are scared, triggered, or overwhelmed. It’s understandable because we get activated so fast in families. Our core hurt comes on in nanoseconds and we just “react.”
As a new parent, when my son acts out by hitting his sister, talking back, or “manipulating” me, it often provokes me into considering the shame tool. I don’t like that my son has this power, but it’s the way it is. I see my inner-shamer come out and hear my dad’s voice inside my head shaming my son. Thankfully before I let it out, I have space to notice it. I have enough room to choose a different course. Whew. And, thank me for being a parent who does the inner work required to have another option besides shame.
And yes, my inner-shamer does come out once in a while with my son, myself, my wife, friends, and strangers. It’s one I’ve been working on for years. He just lives in me, like an old troll, and pops out before I know it. Yet over the years, I’ve gained more ground and space so I can see other choices most of the time.
My work as a parent is to slow this down and not let the animal part of my brain (encoding based on past memory) run the show. Having slowed down, I can see that I am reacting from a very young, hurt place in myself.
In the most subtle and intense fights with family members our rational brain goes out the window. It’s like the hurt little kid inside of us takes the driver’s seat while the adult that can make good cognitive decisions is no where to be found. We enter a fight- flight – freeze, survival response. And, it’s all very normal.
Knowing that this is how we operate allows us room to get support and explore other possibilities. Soon enough, we gain more awareness, which opens to the door to more choices.
And, unlike animals, we can also “clean up” the mess we perhaps created if we shame our son, abandon him, or shut him down. We can take care of the hurt little one inside of us and choose to have the inner adult take the driver’s seat.
Then we can approach our actual son who we just hurt and clean it up. We can say “Hey, when Daddy said _______, I see that that scared you. That makes sense because Daddy raised his voice and got very mad at you. I apologize. I just want you to know that I love you and I don’t want to scare you. I want to learn how to respond differently when you do that behavior again. And, I want you to know that behavior is not okay in our household.” (more options here).
Shame or Tough Love?
Most parents think “hey, I don’t shame my kids.” But shame can be a sneaky, shadowy, elusive emotion. Shame can be as subtle as looking away disappointed, or overtly telling your kid they did it wrong.
Most of us normal parents will shame our kids from time to time. And, most of us dads will shame our sons. Sadly it’s part of our male conditioning. Plan on it. I like the 80/20 rule. If 80% of the time you are using no shame, your son will likely be a healthy adult with limited shame in him. Remember, we parents are not perfect, nor will we ever be (no need to shame yourself here). However, let’s not use “hey I’m not perfect” as an excuse for continuing harmful behavior when we are capable, as adults, of a healthier choice. The only way to do that is if we commit to working on ourselves and gaining new tools (see below).
Shaming your kids works really well if you want children to feel insecure about being themselves and to follow rules because they are afraid of you. Shame is a good tool to control and manipulate kids. They will listen and they will be very afraid to do anything outside the acceptable behaviors you enforce. Then, when they are adults, they will be terribly confused and fearful in intimate relationships. They will become adults who turn in to hurt little children in their most intimate partnerships. They will become parents who revert to shame as a tool when they get triggered.
By in large, shame perpetuates emotional (including neglect), verbal, and physical abuse and will train your son to not believe in himself. The only way out of shame is to deal with our inner child that is deeply hurt and re-parent him or her.
And, here’s where I contradict myself: On the one hand, no child deserves to be humiliated or shamed. And (big risk here), on the other hand once in a blue moon, and strangely enough, shame (or a version of it called tough love) might be what’s required to cut through and help your child grow. It certainly did me when I was in middle school (for more context read Shame versus Tough Love).
There are two keys to shame-free parenting:
- Your Inner work—When we learn to parent ourselves and do the inner work required to parent consciously, we have more options on the menu. For example, when we make a mistake, we now have the ability to model cleaning it up. When we clean it up, our kids understand that adults screw up, and can take responsibility for it, which builds trust again.
- Get some effective tools by taking parenting classes. Don’t know how to clean it up? No idea how to set limits without shaming your kid? Take a parenting class, read books, join groups or on-line forums that support your value system.