The answer, I’ve discovered, depends on who you ask — and how you define the term.
“Shame is the feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong, and you think you should have known better,” said April Masini, a relationship expert and author who also runs an online relationship advice forum. “It’s derivative of guilt, and there is a place for it in parenting.”
Other experts, however, disagree.
“In my experience, people use shame and guilt interchangeably, and I don’t think that’s correct,” said Tanisha Ranger, a licensed psychologist at Insight to Action. “Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong. … Shame, on the other hand, is a deep and pervasive feeling that something is wrong with us.”
Le Shepard, a therapist and mom of three who blogs at Mom*, agrees with Ranger. “Guilt is actually a very healthy emotion and it is what helps develop empathy. Guilt says ‘I did something bad,’ while shame says, ‘I am bad.’ Shame creates a negative self-image instead of recognizing and feeling remorse for a negative action.”
A shameful feeling
So if guilt is the more productive emotion, what do we do with shame? Some see it as a way to bring about change in a child’s heart. “If we are talking about shame as a harrowing feeling, brought on by an awareness of something said or done that was improper, mean or dishonorable, then it can be an impetus for change,” said Tim Thayne, a marriage and family therapist and author of Not By Chance: How Parents Boost Their Teen’s Success In and Out of Treatment.
Kaye Wilson, of ParentCoachOKC, also believes shame can be helpful in some circumstances. “We’ve lost sight of the value of feeling appropriately ashamed of things we do to others out of selfishness or pride or just plain meanness,” she said. “There is an appropriate kind of shame, and I believe that this comes of parents overtly teaching that there is a right and a wrong way to behave.”
Okay, maybe shame isn’t all bad when it’s an internal reaction, stemming from a child’s knowledge that he hasn’t behaved well. But what about when a parent, teacher or other authority figure imposes shame on a child? Does that harm the child’s mental well-being?
“Shame shouldn’t be used as a way of inhibiting children from being who they truly are,” added David Ezell, the clinical director of Darien Wellness. “For example, I worked with an athletic dad who had a son who was not athletic. Dad shamed him with pejorative language and even punishment because the boy was not who Dad thought he ‘should’ be. The child suffered emotionally as a result, affecting his social relationships and grades.”
Shame on you
Even if we don’t shame our kids on purpose, chances are, they will feel ashamed at some point because of something they did, or something someone said to them. When a child feels ashamed, it’s important to not ignore that.
“Explore it. Ask them what they feel, and let them know it’s okay to feel disappointed and uncomfortable — as long as they ask themselves why they feel that way,” Masini said. “Help them articulate these forms of expression, then ask what they can do differently next time, as well as what they can do now to make adjustments. It’s important not to pretend the behavior that led to the shame didn’t happen — and it’s important to help children find roads to take so they can evolve and not get stuck in negative patterns.”
Teaching a child to own their mistakes isn’t the same as making them believe they are a bad person for making those mistakes. “In a difficult moment, we can teach our children that their mistakes don’t taint them as an unloveable or bad person,” Thayne said. “What happened may be a mistake that they regret, but their worth and belonging are constants.” He recommends that parents talk about what shame feels like and said that, “in the right dosage, it’s a motivator for making changes.”
Because mistakes are part of being human, kids need to learn how to not let shame take root in their hearts. “The guilt after a mistake helps with the development of a sense of right and wrong, but shame often makes people dig their heels into the bad behavior in an attempt to convince themselves that what they’re doing is okay, or to give up on the idea that they could ever be ‘good,’” said Shephard.
However, it’s critical that parents don’t use shame to make their kids feel stupid, dumb, or bad about themselves. “I never believe instilling an identity of shame is healthy for a child,” said Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders. “I do, however, believe in speaking with a child about a past behavior and letting them know they are guilty of behavior that may hurt someone else. Then I would separate that behavior from their identity. In other words, say to the child: ‘You are better than this.’”
Words, more than actions, can instill a sense of shame, so we should be careful with how we address misbehavior. “When parents say ‘you are …’ instead of ‘you did …’ they may be using shame. … When we focus on actions, we’re looking at guilt. When we act in ways that push our kids to identify as bad or broken, we’re using shame to punish,” said Shephard.
I want to avoid heaping shame on my kids, and instead try to help them process the shame they feel as a result of their own wrongdoing in a way that’s more positive than negative. And I’m trying hard to replace, “You should be/feel ashamed” with “What you did was wrong.” It’s a small change, but one I think will benefit them in the future.