It seems that there have been a lot of stories in the news and going viral on social media about parents using shaming techniques to combat their child’s poor choices and/or acting out behavior. You’ve probably heard about the dad in Florida who made his son stand at a busy intersection with a sign because the child, who is in middle school, is failing three classes and is the “class clown,” or the mom in Indiana who had her son wear a sign stating “I lie, I steal, I sell drug, I don’t follow the law.” Let’s not forget about the mom who sold her daughter and friends’ concert tickets on eBay and included statements like “YOU all LIED to us about sleep overs so you could hang like little trollops at an older guys HOUSE?????” within the listing. Most of the time, the reason given for these extreme punishments is that the parent is out of ideas for how to get the child to improve their behavior, and they feel that they have tried all other options.
I certainly empathize with the fear and frustration behind these actions. As a 1-on-1 Coach, I hear many parents echoing similar statements of wanting to shame their child to do better.
Let’s talk for a minute about the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt comes from recognition that one has done something wrong, and feels remorse from that wrongdoing. Guilt can lead to accountability, since that person is likely to feel regret and responsibility for his or her actions. Shame is more about feelings of humiliation and worthlessness, and is likely to cause that person to withdraw in embarrassment. The difference here is that shame does not lead to accountability—and may lead to a decrease in effective problem-solving skills.
The issue that arises with using shame as a punishment is that there is little accountability gained. The child in these stories is not learning how to do better in his classes, or how to be honest or law abiding by standing at an intersection with an embarrassing sign or by being humiliated via the Internet. He or she is learning that if you make poor decisions, you may be subjected to national (or even international) public humiliation. I find it interesting that if the child is interviewed in these stories, there is usually some variation of the statement, “I’ve learned my lesson. I’m going to do better.” How many times have you heard this as a parent? “I won’t do that anymore,” “I’ll do better,” or “I’ll bring my grades up—I promise!” This is not to say that kids don’t mean it when they say these things. James Lehman calls this “wishful thinking,” where the child thinks things will get better just because he or she wants them to be better. The bigger issue is, how is this change going to happen? What is going to be different? What is this parent going to see the child doing to know that he or she is doing better or trying harder?
The focus for the change should be on problem solving. James states that “you can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings.” It is unlikely that the children and teens in these stories will remember the feelings of shame and humiliation and somehow use that to get straight A’s for the rest of the year, or follow the law when it feels easier to steal or sell drugs, or tell the truth to their parents when their friends are pressuring them to lie. What will help a child improve his grades is to think through what happened in his classes that caused him to fail, and what he can do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again. What will help a teen to stop stealing or selling drugs is to plan for times when he or she may be tempted to engage in these activities, and come up with a specific action plan for what s/he can do instead. What will help a teen to overcome peer pressure is to think through what she can say to friends who are trying to get her to go along with something inappropriate.
If the child or teen makes these changes and sees that s/he is not getting in trouble with parents, or failing classes, or getting in trouble with the law anymore, s/he will likely feel better and continue to improve her/his behavior over the long term.
Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.