Parents discipline their children in many ways in order to help them do the right thing. Effective discipline methods include those that criticize a child’s behavior in order to make it stop. Many parents, however, rely on discipline strategies that criticize the child instead of the behavior.
These latter results in shame, a pervasive emotion that makes children think they are no good. When children believe they are no good, they usually end up snatching cookies because they think that is what’s expected of them.
Identify shame-based tactics
Consider the ways you respond to your child’s defiant or disobedient behavior. On a sheet of paper, write the things you have said or done to your child when he or she repeatedly ignores you or talks back. Then, write what you say in frustration, when you want him or her to listen, or in hopes of getting a reaction. Writing as opposed to just thinking about them will make them more apparent. Now read what you wrote. Does it make you feel uncomfortable or cause you to feel regret? If so, challenge yourself to incorporate more positive approaches.
Talk about shame
Have a discussion with your child about the comments you’ve made in the past. Ask your child how he or she feels when you say the things you wrote down. You could say something like, “I know that when I get really mad at you, I sometimes call you stupid. How does that make you feel?” Allow your child to speak freely by not interrupting and trying to defend your comments. Let his or her reaction sink in without refute. You may experience your child’s anger or sadness, or you may hear that your comments seem to have no effect at all. Regardless, take a moment to acknowledge your child’s feelings and then reaffirm your child’s self-worth by listing all the wonderful characteristics he or she possesses. Next, apologize for the unintentional harm you may have caused, and let your child know that you will try your best to give him or her consequences with care in the future.
Focus on what instead of who is wrong
Remember that shame-based talk makes children believe they are the problem as opposed to their behavior. Therefore, find ways to reprimand your child’s behavior without hurting your child’s character. Instead of saying, “You’re so clumsy” to your son, who spilled cereal and milk on the kitchen floor, talk about the things that led to the spill. Then tell him how he can fix it. “You were trying to do too many things at once. Next time, sit and eat your breakfast.” By focusing on the what instead of the who, your words will be less hurtful and will allow your child to believe that the inappropriate actions he showed today are things he can fix tomorrow.
Replace shame-based talk with silence
The stress of parenting is what often leads to shame-based talk. Sparked either by a child’s totally defiant actions or a parent’s lack of sleep, caregivers sometimes respond with personal verbal attacks as opposed to focusing on the behavior. In these moments of frustration, you may find it helpful to be quiet. I often used silence as a teacher. When upset by my students’ disruptive behavior, I sat still and quiet in front of a group of 30 10-year-olds, who became so concerned about what made me stop talking that they sat still and quiet themselves.
This same strategy can be just as useful for parents. Silence gives parents the opportunity to breathe deeply, decrease their anger, and think of non-shaming statements when they do decide to address their children.
Shame-based parenting can damage your child’s self-worth, so use the strategies above to build up your child’s self-esteem instead of stealing from it.
China Hill is a curriculum writer for KIPP Ascend Charter School on the West Side.