Shame Does Not Teach Children to Do Better

Shame Does Not Teach Children to Do Better

Why Parents May Want to Reconsider Shame as a Parenting Tactic

Have you seen the children in the “This is our get along shirt”? What about children with the signs:“Don’t trust me. I am a thief and will steal from you” Or the girl that was made to wear some thrift shop outfits to look like a girl she had been teasing?

Shaming and making a child feel badly about stealing, teasing, bullying and other missteps have become such an unfortunate trend in parenting. While it may give parents a sense that they are doing something and teaching their child a lesson, the lessons connected to feeling shame are most often far from helpful:

Shame can lead to a child feeling incapable, alone and discouraged – all which have the potential to lead to more negative behavior and unacceptable choices. As parents we should be building our children up, not tearing them down.

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
― Brené Brown

Shame and humiliation teach shame and humiliation. Children that bully and shame others have most typically experienced the same from a parent, caregiver or peer. Using shame to “teach” perpetuates the cycle of shame, humiliation and bullying.

Shame and humiliation lead to negative feelings of self-worth. Several different bodies of research* show that punishment (including shame tactics and spanking) will not lead to any long term results. On the contrary, it actually shows that over time, punishments can have negative impacts on a child’s esteem, confidence and overall well-being.

“Shame is not just one of the biggest causes of emotional problems; it’s also one of the biggest impediments to dealing with them. “ – David Leibow, M.D.

Shame breaks trust and respect between parents and children. For children to grow healthy and well, feeling mutual trust, respect and love is vital.

Shame does not help children learn positive values such as making amends, team work, cooperation or problem solving. A child that is forced to wear the “I steal-don’t trust me” t-shirt is not learning about not stealing or how to make amends or getting to the reasons behind the stealing.

parenting without shame

When parents make a conscious choice to avoid tactics that induce shame, guilt and hurt, when they choose not to use public signs, specific outfits or posting photos as punishments for “bad behavior” and instead search for positive alternatives, they can guide children into a direction of confidence and capability. Not only that, choosing positive and real-life alternatives to addressing problems, parents are modeling and teaching skills that lead to proper adjustment later in life.

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” Chinese Proverb

Every child in the process of growing will make mistakes. This is vital to the learning process. Instead of shaming or humiliating, if we make an effort to teach, involve and respect our children, in turn they may learn the true value behind their actions. The place that shame takes us is not a place where true learning can happen. 

Creative parenting solutions that are kind, helpful and truly life changing are abundant. Does it take some more effort, yes, it does. It takes getting to know our children, keeping an open dialogue, truly listening and tuning in, being present and ready to offer genuine encouragement. It’s about believing that our children are capable and deep down trusting that our children are good people that can do good things.

Discipline that supports responsible, healthy growth  isn’t about easy way outs, posting pictures for all to laugh and gawk at, demanding respect or lashing out in anger. The real aim of discipline can be to guide our children and help them return to a positive path if they lose their way.

What are some alternatives?

What about going together to the local soup kitchen, helping out at the local animal shelter, retirement home, organizing a clothing or book drive? How about writing a letter of apology and explaining the concept of making amends? Reading books with positive messages? Giving second chances? Asking children how they think the problem can be solved? What about taking time to teach skills like cleaning up messes, helping around the house? Raising funds for a charity? Getting children to meet with positive role models? Organizing a walk or race to raise awareness for a worthy cause? Having some one-on-one time every week to listen, really listen to what our children have to say? What about teaching empathy and kindness? What about simply treating our children the way we wish them to treat others?

 It’s beyond unfortunate to see so many people cheering on the shame and the humiliation that so many parents are freely dishing out.  We stand to gain so much as humanity if the mentality of “look who’s the boss now” parenting style would just fade away.   Parenting is not a walk in the park and none of us are perfect. I get that. Every morning when I look at my three kids I remember that. When my inbox is full of requests for help, I get that.  I also truly believe that modeling positive behavior is incredibly contagious…kindness begets kindness, respect brings about respect.  

Just imagine a world where parenting with hope, peace, respect and trust would be the norm, wouldn’t that be amazing? 

Peace & Be Well,

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

16 Responses to Shame Does Not Teach Children to Do Better

  1. Thank you for this! I recently posted a pic of the ‘get along shirt’ on my page and was surprised at all of the parents that thought it was “great!”. I will share this in hopes that it reaches them, thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for this Ariadne. I have just seen a photo of that “get-along shirt”, as well as other similar shame photos, so this article was perfect timing. I wish more people understood that there is another way to respond to children’s behaviour that is far more likely to teach respect and compassion for both self and others.

  3. Thank you Heather for your kind feedback. I do think parents that are turning to these tactics really do want to teach their children something and most are pretty well intentioned. I do hope that what I share here will help families find those other ways to respond too.

  4. Thank you for this very informative post! It’s very well written and is very clear. I learned a lot from reading this and I hope a lot of parents will also be able to read your blog and understand that shame and humiliation, as a form of discipline, does more harm than good.

  5. Technically, couldn’t making your child write a letter of apology also be considered shaming? My nephews once put firecrackers in the neighbors mailbox so I took each one of them to her house and made them apologize. I have never seen either one of them look so ashamed and uncomfortable as I did that day.

  6. Chase, I agree that making a child apologize before they understand why or before they express remorse and understanding is not helpful. I think teaching children how to make amends starts with us modeling that, perhaps doing it together. Talking about what making amends is about and helping children connect their actions and choices and how these affected others is a good starting point. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. I am a step parent. It has been such a blessing for me. My wife has two boys(8,9) We have a 11 mo daughter together. A few years ago, if you would have told me that in two years I’d be a parent of three kids, married and owned a house… I’d have said that it was just crazy talk. My question is, as a step dad, what role do I have with them?? Like, am I supposed to be “the best friend/disneyland dad”? Am I just an observer to their relationship because I’m not “their family”? How or when do I get to that place where I feel like her boys are “our boys”? I want to create a single family unit, but don’t know how. Thanks for your very insightful post.

  8. Hi Jay,
    Congratulations on your new family. Adjustment to step parenting and new parenting all in one can be quite the transition. Your role as a step dad in the begining can be all about getting to know your new step children. What do they love, what are their interests, what makes them who they are? Build a strong foundation, remember that they know their mama since birth and for now she is their trusted source of guidance. You and your wife can work together to change “mine” and “yours” to ours if you focus on becoming a family through routines and rituals that foster togetherness and a sense that you all belong together. Families are a work in progress (even the ones that didn’t start out blended or with step parents!) Keep communication with your wife ongoing about your roles, her expectations and yours, and talk to the children as a unit, WE and US but also give space for the children to adjust. Research on separation and loss show that children experience the stress of separation, loss or divorce for 3 years and sometimes more. As a step dad your role can be to be a good listener, a good role model (children tend to watch us more than they listen to the words we say, so treat their mom how you wish them to treat the world!) A great resources is Positive Disciplie for Step Families – a book you can find in most libraries! hope that helps.

  9. I have slowly discovered that parenting practices need to be individually shaped to each child. My oldest is a 6 year old boy who is easily discouraged. I’m sure a combination of my early idea of parenting and my son’s personality is responsible.
    Over the last two or so years, when he is rebuked for an offense (such as lying or playing when clearly given the task of cleaning up his toys) he has begun to clam up and can barely talk in defense or in apology. I am afraid that our strict approach to parenting is causing him to doubt his abilities. He has had trouble in K and 1st grades completing his work (practice sheets, writing assignments, etc) on his own and rarely within the time allotted. He has stated that the work is “too hard” but when tested orally he is way above average.
    My conclusion is that the culprit is self doubt and I am sad to think that the cause could be our approach to parenting.
    We don’t have a get along shirt, we always say please and thank you to our children, have never purposely shamed our children by having them hold a sign for others to mock them, and try not to use words like “bad” nor ever interrupt them. On the other hand, I have a bad habit of being overbearing (perfectionist), I raise my voice (try not to “shout”) to communicate the seriousness of the situation, and use phrases like “you should know better”, “what were you thinking?”, “that was naughty”, and if there is a lesson I’ve taught over and over and he is still not learning it (pushing his sister when she annoys him) then I utilize the dreaded spanking to give him a motive for self control. For most other offenses he sits in time out followed by a talk about what happened, has a toy or belonging removed (temporarily), looses a privilege (no cartoons), or an extra chore (cleaning up all the toys because of not playing nicely). Somewhere along the line, the commitment to consistency developed flashes of perfectionism and my sensitive son realized he can’t be perfect.
    The majority of your article is about how shaming while teaching lessons has negative effects on the emotional development of the child. As parenting is always a learning experience and there is no redo in life, I was hoping you could weigh in on some strategies to counter act those negative effects if the child has already developed self doubt, poor self esteem, or is very easily discouraged.

  10. Claire,
    It is clear that you are a very dedicated and concerned mother and that you wish to raise a responsible child. It’s very true that parenting is a learning curve and that all of us make mistakes or decisions we later decide don’t quite work the way we wish they did. I would strongly encourage you to try a positive, encouragement based approach to discipline and helping your son re-gain trust in his inner capabilities. Loosing privileges, sitting in time out and having belongings removed teach children to feel badly about their behavior but does not encourage or teach them the better, acceptable behaviors and skills to make a good choice the next time around. It also takes away from our parental influence because it creates fear instead of trust. All the connected discipline tools in my book (12 Alternatives to time OUt) as well as all the positive discipline tools (many books to choose from) are aimed at teaching problem solving and helping children feel capable. Children often know better, but much like adults, they forget or make a different choice. I would highly encourage you to spend time together with your son, playing and enjoying each other. 6 is an amazing age, children have a lot to show us and tell us!! And to fill up your parenting tool box with some ways to address behaviors that encourage such as having family meetings, making agreements, letting him solve problems, accepting mistakes, validating and cooperative problem solving. It’s never too late to encourage children and to show unconditional love. The switch from punitive parenting can be difficult but it’s well worth the end results!! I hope this is helpful to you and your family.

  11. […] You know that spanking saying, “this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you?” Well, I think this sort of public shaming does just that and more. It hurts everyone by taking the family and placing them in a viral spotlight and destroying the kid’s esteem. […]

  12. Hi Ariadne,
    You mention several bodies of research concerning punishment and there’s an asterisk by the word, but I cannot find the reference on the page. Could you give some links to it or let me know how else can I find it.
    And I totally agree with what you’ve written.
    All the best.


  13. Hi Anna,

    These might be of interest as they look specifically at parental behaviors like spanking and isolating as well as attachment patterns and child well-being.

    Slade, E. S. (2004). Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers.Pediatrics, 113(5), 1321-1330.

    Child Abuse Negl. 1999 Apr;23(4):339-51. Effects of parental verbal aggression on children’s self-esteem and school marks.Solomon CR1, Serres F.

    Gershoff & Bitensky, 2007 THE CASE AGAINST CORPORAL PUNISHMENT OF CHILDREN Converging Evidence From Social Science Research and International Human Rights Law and Implications for U.S. Public Policy

    Bernard, K., Dozier, M., Bick, J., Lewis-Morrarty, E., Lindhiem, O., & Carlson, E. (2013). Enhancing attachment organization among maltreated children: results of a randomized clinical trial. Child Development, 83, 623-636.

    Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2012). The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper 12.

    Kim, S., & Kochanska, G. (2012). Toward a new understanding of legacy of early attachments for future antisocial trajectories: Evidence from two longitudinal studies. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 783-806.

    There are many great books on this – this one has a great review of the research on Shame. Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture
    By Paul Gilbert, Bernice Andrews

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