Birth and parenting expert Peggy O’Mara once wrote, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Her words have become part of my personal parenting mantra, the cornerstone of my parenting goals. Emphasis on “goals.”
I try my very best to speak to my children with respect and kindness. But far too often, I fail. My book of excuses is a mile long, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve both knowingly and unknowingly shamed my children in the course of our conversations.
Sometimes these choices are not what you had in mind or their independence slows your routine and it it is just easier to do things and make the decisions for them.
When I know I’ve resorted to shaming, I can easily address the issue at hand and ask for forgiveness. We can resolve the hardship or misunderstanding and move on. But what about the times when I don’t identify the shame factor? When what I say or do isn’t as apparent but still has a negative effect on my child?
This happens most often with my middle child, my son who is a brand new 5-year-old. He and I clash. Frequently. Not because we wake up in the morning intent on fussing, but because our personalities seem to rub each other the wrong way more often than not.
But I’m the adult. I’m the parent, responsible for nurturing, facilitating, and growing a positive relationship no matter how much work it takes. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I have countless opportunities to lead by example and eliminate shame from our interactions. It’s good for him and for me. Through self-reflection and study on effective parenting I can see where I’ve let episodes of shame creep in and where it still quietly lies in hidden places. Resorting to shame is easy; quelling it takes diligence and practice.
To give a practical example, here’s a dose of real life. Lately my son and I have been struggling with his food choices. I shouldn’t be surprised—I myself was a very picky eater as a child. At one point I recall telling my mom that I was a “fruitarian” because I preferred to eat only fruit…and maybe graham crackers and a few choice desserts on the side.
So I get him. It’s hard to try new things. It’s even harder when the new things that are healthy and good aren’t a favorite texture or flavor. But balanced meals and nutrition ARE important. And that’s our crux, the point where we argue. Where he puts his foot down and where I pull shame off the shelf and lather it on thick. “Don’t you want to grow big and strong?” I’ll ask. “Don’t you want to make good choices like your sister?!?”
He does, but he doesn’t even more. We fuss and try to compromise, and by the time breakfast is over, I’m weary. Maybe I should let it go, but maybe I can’t. It’s just as much a me issue as it is a him issue. For me, it’s all about comparison. When lunch boxes are judged for their beauty and balance and all the cool moms are raving about their super organic veggie-infused energy “dessert” bites that their kids won’t stop begging for, I’m coaxing my 5-year-old to try a bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Truly.
All that is to say: shame. It’s a beast in the closet of my parenting tools. A tactic that is hard to avoid but one that, once identified and broached head-on, pales in comparison to my other options and clearly doesn’t align with the mom I want to be.
If you’re curious about what other examples of shame look like, here are a few scenarios where shame can unknowingly find its way into your parent–child relationship, according to Anastasia Moloney, an early childhood development specialist and an expert at The Tot—and perhaps even more important, how you can say no to shaming opportunities.
1. Not Letting a Child Do Things For Themselves
Moloney says, “Children hit a stage where they want to be independent in their daily skills or decision making. Sometimes these choices are not what you had in mind or their independence slows your routine and it is just easier to do things and make the decisions for them.”
He [or] she needs to learn through experience and build confidence in independence.
Moloney shares a scenario all parents can easily imagine: “You are trying to get everyone ready and out the door, your child wants to put on their clothes themselves but puts it on backward or in your opinion takes too long so you take over and hurry them.”
You jump in, chiding their slowness, fixing their mistakes, and generally making them feel less than through your actions, words, and tone. That’s shaming.
But it can be fixed! Moloney says, “No matter how time consuming it may seem, letting your child try to dress him- [or] herself, play their own way, or make age-appropriate choices for themselves is beneficial. He [or] she needs to learn through experience and build confidence in independence.”
2. Judging Your Child’s Choice
“This can be as simple as a critical statement in response to an action, such as ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘I can’t believe you just did that,'” says Moloney.
Instead, she encourages parents to “acknowledge [the child’s] choice and offer to share with them why it may not be a good idea. If possible let them learn from experience and then talk about why that might not be the right choice after.”
3. Telling Them Not to Cry
Avoid this phrase at all costs! “Instead of telling them not to cry,” Moloney says, “try getting on their level, then relate to them and acknowledge what they are feeling.”
Think about consequences being very relevant. If I throw blocks, I need to take a short break from blocks and can come back when I am calm.
In truth, isn’t that what we all want when our tears are ready to burst?
4. Setting Expectations Too High
Expectations are wonderful. Often, they’ll help little ones rise to the occasion, learn new skills, and eventually become proficient adults.
This does not mean that you cannot discipline or enforce rules, just make sure you do so appropriately.
Still, Moloney reminds parents: “Set your expectations at an age-appropriate level. Your 2- and 3-year-old has trouble with limits and sharing. Give them age-appropriate behavior expectations. Think about consequences being very relevant. If I throw blocks, I need to take a short break from blocks and can come back when I am calm.”
5. Time Out or Public Discipline
Appropriate discipline will always be a controversial discussion among parents, but Moloney says that “If your child is misbehaving with other kids around, you shame your child when you yell across the playground to tell them to stop or point out what they are doing. Instead of sending your child to time out or disciplining him [or ] her in front of everyone, take your child aside and talk to them about the situation or the rules.
“This also will give your child a break from the situation, allow him [or] her to calm down, and then you can address the issue in a learning setting. This does not mean that you cannot discipline or enforce rules, just make sure you do so appropriately.”
I force myself to pause and imagine what I want to say and the feelings I want to communicate before I apply any type of discipline. I’m not perfect, but that initial pause gives me the time I need to reflect and avoid unknowingly (or knowingly) shaming my child.
6. Using a Harsh Tone or Laughing at Your Child
Moloney hit the nail on the head when she said that “We want our children to improve and learn from their situations. You can be firm but respectful with our children.”
…instead of ignoring their statement or telling them you do not understand, try to figure out the context or repeat what you do understand.
Repeat with me now: TONE IS EVERYTHING.
7. Telling Them They are Not a Big Boy or Girl
“This often occurs with potty training,” says Moloney, “and with habits you think they ‘should have’ outgrown such as thumb sucking, sleeping in their own bed, etc. These are all big milestones for your child and we need to be supportive.”
Moloney says, “Encouragement with new milestones, even when we feel frustrated or your child experiences regressions [is key]. This can also be when not understanding your child when they are first learning to communicate, instead of ignoring their statement or telling them you do not understand, try to figure out the context or repeat what you do understand. This can encourage them to continue to communicate effectively.”
Another reason we should all kick shaming to the curb? Science says a gentler approach is good for our kids…and good for parents too!
The gentle parenting community is brimming with advice, hands-on tips, and resources to reform how parents approach discipline and cultivate an atmosphere of respect for our children.
Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist with expertise in parenting, has written extensively about what she calls Aha! Moments. On her website she defines an Aha! Moment as “a lightning flash of insight, when suddenly we see things from another perspective, and everything has the potential to be different.”
That’s exactly the case when a parent identifies shame in their interactions with their child. They recognize what has been a behind-the-scenes player in their parenting techniques and can commit to breaking the cycle of shaming their child.
When all is said and done, Moloney encourages parents to “take many deep breaths to make sure you handle the moment in a positive way and create a teaching moment where you can help your child grow.”
That doesn’t come easily, but with practice, it’s something we can all improve on.
Parenting is a balance of creating boundaries (in my case, setting a precedent of making healthy food choices) and opportunities for independence (allowing my son to have a reasonable amount of control by letting him choose if he wants a PB&J, grilled cheese, or turkey sandwich, for example).
Once parents identify their shaming triggers, we have to make it a goal to eliminate them. The result will be a happier, healthier family experience where trust abounds.
You’ll breathe a sigh of relief at the calm and personal achievement you’ve reached, and although your child might not recognize the efforts you’ve gone to in reducing episodes of shaming, they’ll definitely feel the effects and be better off because of it.