Recently I toured a preschool where I witnessed the teacher call a little boy "lazy" and a girl "bossy and sassy." The little boy was clearly an observer who needed time to acclimate to a chaotic environment, and the little girl was simply organizing a game while the teacher and I talked. I was appalled to hear these labels roll off the preschool teacher's tongue so naturally, reminding me that shaming happens insidiously and subconsciously.
Not long ago, a picture of time out chairs was circulating around Facebook. The picture shows separate chairs for boys and girls, both explaining why the child requires a time out. The one for girls says, “Whining and being sassy is not nice, maybe next time you’ll think twice because little girls who throw a fit will be little girls who have to sit.” Some versions even include a picture of a crown, implying that the little girl is acting like a princess. The one for boys isn’t much better, “Shouting is not nice, and kicking hurts. Nobody likes their face in the dirt. So boys who fight, kick, and shout will be boys that sit in time out.” I'm sure the creator of these chairs found them to be clever, but in actuality they only succeed in adding shame to an already ineffective punishment.
What Is My Goal?
When providing discipline, we must continuously come back to this question: what skill am I teaching my children? In a given moment, we can choose to respond to a meltdown with empathy: “Are you feeling frustrated that you can’t use the blue cup? It’s dirty right now, but how about you use the yellow one?” or by minimizing and shaming: “Stop whining and being bossy, you’re not getting the blue cup!” If we choose the latter, we're choosing not to empower our children with any useful words or acknowledge their inherent lack of power and control. When we view a child having difficulty as “throwing a fit” or being naughty, we’re shaming her for having a developmentally appropriate reaction to intense feelings. This is another example of how we can miss an opportunity to teach emotional intelligence and mood regulation. Shaming invalidates feelings, suggests that showing emotional vulnerability is unacceptable, and is completely devoid of empathy.
The Dark Side of Shaming
Shaming causes our children to question themselves, their feelings, and their self-worth. Severe shame is theorized to contribute to the development of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder since it promotes a negative inner dialogue based on self-doubt. As Peggy O'Mara observes, "The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice."
The problem with shaming time out chairs is they label our children and focus on ambiguous, seemingly meaningless values. How do we even define “nice” for our children? Often “not nice” is a catchall for behaviors we don’t like. “Not nice” is too vague and doesn’t give a child any information about what is actually expected of him. What he will understand, however, is that he isn't nice. Instead he is naughty, violent, or somehow bad. Children who continuously receive the message that they’re bad eventually internalize this message and believe there is something wrong with them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s both tragic and avoidable. Rebecca Eanes points out that we can become so focused on a behavior that we forget to see our child as a whole being. Instead we reduce our children to one action rather than viewing them as growing people still learning to navigate the world.
Just as importantly, shaming damages our relationship with our children. As with other forms of punishment, our children feel betrayed when they look to us for guidance and instead their feelings are invalidated. When we meet their need for direction with shame, we essentially tell our children that we are untrustworthy. Their feelings and fragile sense of self aren't safe with us. We discourage them from trusting us with their big emotions because we aren't able to manage our discomfort with them.
As Dr. McBride states, “It is an expectation [by children] that the parent will provide safety, protection, acceptance, understanding and empathy.” We have the power to teach our children that they're sassy or that when they need guidance and gentle boundaries, we can be the safe container they need.