9-year-old Harry knew his mother's rules, as age-old as the act of parenting itself: No ball playing in the house. And yet he couldn't seem to help himself. Again and again, his mother, Lisa, would find Harry tossing a baseball in their small galley kitchen or kicking around a soccer ball in the cramped living room of their Upper East Side apartment in New York City.
Each time, Lisa would remind Harry of the rule, and direct him to another activity. "And then one day he threw a baseball right at the television," Lisa told me, still in shock weeks later. "I flew into a rage. I ran into the living room, shards of glass everywhere, and just screamed: 'Are you kidding me? What were you thinking?!'" She knew it was likely not the best response -- it certainly didn't feel good -- but, she said, she just didn't know how to classify her typically bright son's behavior as anything but completely idiotic.
Which, of course, is the message Lisa sent to Harry through her outburst, and with her words, which were meant to -- and did -- shame him, whether that was her intent or not. "Beyond the fact that he'd ignored my very consistent rule about playing with balls inside, I couldn't believe he had been so dumb," Lisa said. "But looking back, I can see he was as stunned with the events as I was. It was an avoidable accident, for sure, but a terrible accident nonetheless."
Harry, for his part, burst into tears, ran to his room, and slammed the door.
It's often difficult for parents to know how to address disappointment, especially in cases where older kids "really should know better," like in the case of Harry. But it's important to remember that while discipline is crucial during all stages of raising a child, discipline is not about getting even, inducing guilt, or even punishing -- all of which are forms of shaming a child. Instead, disciplining, at any age, is about correcting and guiding him toward more appropriate behavior.
Often when we talk about shaming, we talk about the obvious forms: spanking or other physical punishments, public reprimand. But there are other, subtler ways that parents shame their children in the pursuit of discipline. These include making a child feel guilty, deficient, or "bad"; a source of trouble; just plain dumb. It can include belittling a child, or even something as seemingly benign as rolling your eyes at him or sighing in response to something he's done. Comments might include "You're acting like such a baby," or "You'd lose your head if it weren't glued on!" Oftentimes, shaming can happen in front of others, but it's just as likely to happen in private between parent and child. As a form of behavior modification, though, shaming -- whether obvious or subtle -- is ineffective and even destructive.
That's because since most kids can't distinguish between their impulses -- their actions -- and their selves, instead of condemning the behavior, shaming ends up condemning the child, and making him feel bad about himself.
It's important to recognize that discipline is not the same as punishment. Discipline is necessary. Punishment is not. In most cases, misbehavior among toddlers and young kids isn't something that requires punishing but, instead, some understanding and a frank parent-child discussion. Many kids will act out as a cry for attention or for firmer limits. Most kids -- especially boys -- have an impulse to push boundaries while also needing to know that they'll be reigned in. Others act out as they learn how to get their desires met; all kids, at one point or another, will express a feeling or need in a socially unacceptable way. The job of the parent is to help kids develop positive strategies for expressing those feelings and needs, and set their own limits, part of which includes learning about consequences.
Recently, Renee found 7-year-old Tyler watching television, a half-eaten lollipop sitting, unwrapped, on the couch next to him, slowly forming a red circle on the light gray suede. "It was so unbelievably outrageous that my first words were, 'Hello? What do you think you're doing?'" Renee remembered. "I wasn't intending to make him feel stupid, although it was an incredibly stupid thing he did. I wanted to wake him up and make him see how unlike him this was." What the comment likely made Tyler feel, however, was small and insignificant. What Renee might have said instead is something like, "Tyler, I feel disappointed that you didn't think about what might happen if you put the wet lollipop on the couch. You should know that the couch will now need to be cleaned." Or even, "I wonder what made you decide to put the lollipop on the couch?"
Instead of seeking to change Tyler's behavior by making him feel shame, Renee might have talked to him to find out why he acted as he did, while also letting him know the consequences: how his actions make others feel, the effects of his behavior. Maybe he was acting out. Maybe he was upset about something and feeling distracted. Approaching such a situation as a discussion, and not a reprimand meant to intimidate or cause fear, can be a chance for parent and child to connect. Which is why positive discipline ends up being much more effective than shaming, quilting, or belittling both now and later. Even the most "loving" forms of punishment often come across as judgments and intensify feelings of shame; later, this shows up in teens and young adults who put immense pressure on themselves to be very good at all times, something that can lead to anxiety and depression, or repressed anger and rebellion. Instead, setting limits and using discussion to discipline can help kids manage impulses on their own, develop a gauge for acceptable behavior, and grow into adults who are cooperative and secure in who they are.
After the incident with the television, Lisa let Harry sit in his room while she calmed down. But then she invited him out to talk about what had happened -- and why it had happened. They talked about him feeling bored but too shy around the boys at the park, which is why he kept playing in the house, alone. "I got to understand a bit about what he was going through at school and with the other kids, and I think he was acting out because he was struggling a bit but didn't know how to express that," she said. "He felt bad enough about the incident that I didn't punish him, but I most definitely had him help clean up." Not having a TV, she said, actually proved to be a nice chance for family bonding. "We started talking more and more about how to make friends," she said. "And, of course, going without television for a few weeks was a lesson in itself. A big one."
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com