Welcome to the last blog post in “The Peaceful Home” mini-series! In this series I have been talking about peaceful parenting, sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent whist reducing the conflict in your home. We’ve had posts on stepping away from using “no” so much, creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, reducing stress around food and mealtimes , coping with tantrums, why we don’t use punishments, the power of play, keeping calm, why it might feel like gentle parenting isn’t helping, and sharing some ways to tackle three common parenting issues. This week I’m writing about shame, an all-too-common parenting tool, and how we can move past shame – for ourselves and our children – towards connected and wholehearted living.
If you’re a Brené Brown fan, you’ll immediately recognise her influence on this post by the title. For those of you who don’t know her, Brown is a researcher, speaker, and best-selling author who specialises in shame and vulnerability. She argues that the shaming culture we live in makes it harder than ever to show courage, be vulnerable, and live wholehearted lives where we are truly able to show up as ourselves. Although Brown does not explicitly write parenting books, she does address parenting and her work is so very valuable for parents as we consider how we want to raise our children and the values and examples we wish to provide them with.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her work recently and how it ties into peaceful parenting, and I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
Shame as control method
In his excellent book “Parenting for a Peaceful World”, Robin Grille talks about shame as a widely used control method employed by authoritarian parents. Verbal punishment is still common in most homes and schools and relies on shame and the mental pain that comes from feeling others’ disappointment, embarrassment, disgust or indifference towards us as a deterrent in the same way that corporal punishment relies on physical pain. In Grille’s words, shame is “designed to cause children to curtail behaviour through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves… it operates by giving children a negative image about their selves rather than about the impact of their behaviour.”
Shaming children might look like:
- Telling them they are “naughty” or that “good children don’t do this”.
- Comparing their behaviour to that of other children: “Do you see any of the other children here running around?” or “Why can’t you sit nicely like your brother?”
- Telling them to be a “big boy / girl” or that they are “acting like a baby”.
- Describing their behaviour or bodily functions as “disgusting” or “horrible”.
- Giving them a look of distain, contempt, or disgust.
Although we are all born with the capacity for shame – it is a human emotion – responding to certain situations with shame is a learned behaviour, and culturally based: “We learn what we are expected to be ashamed of based on the things that others shame us for. In other words, this means that wherever there is shame, there has been a shamer. We become ashamed of ourselves because someone of significance in our lives put us to shame.” (Grille)
This shame is most powerful when it comes from someone we love or look up to, which is why it is parents use of shaming that can have the deepest effects (alongside teachers, siblings, and other family members and caregivers.
Parents are not immune from this shame – in fact, it is often their own shame which perpetuates the shame they inflict upon their children. As Brown writes: “Parenting is a shame and judgement minefield precisely because most of us are wading through uncertainty and self-doubt when it comes to raising our children.”
The effects of shame
“When made to feel unworthy, children often work extra hard to please their parents. This makes the parent think that the shaming has worked. But has it? Shaming… teaches nothing about relationships. While shaming has the power to control behaviour, it does not have the power to teach empathy. When we repeatedly label a child “naughty”, we condition them to focus inward negatively; they become preoccupied with themselves and their failure to please. Not surprisingly, psychotherapists and researchers are finding that individuals who are more prone to shame are less capable of empathy towards others, and more self-preoccupied.” (Grille)
“When we’re hurting, either full of shame or just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours and to attack or shame others.” (Brown)
Shameful language causes children short-term emotional pain, and there is evidence that it may harm their self-esteem for years to come. After all, children’s identities are formed by what they are told about themselves. Call a child naughty enough times, and they will surely come to internalise and believe it way into adulthood.
It’s not just the children who are experiencing shame who suffer. Both Brown and Grille talk about the fact that children whose families use shame-based methods of control are more likely to exhibit behaviours such as interpersonal aggression, bullying, vying for social ranking, and “delinquency”. This makes sense of course: when we experience shame we feel humiliated, which can lead to hostility and anger, and the desire to take it out on others.
I remember when I was around seven years old, there was a girl who was the class “bully” – she would often act aggressively towards those around her, myself included. One day after school I was walking home with my mother and we saw this girl and her father. The dad was speaking to her in a shockingly aggressive manner, swearing and belittling her. My mother in her wisdom used the experience to talk to me about the fact that the girl’s actions at school were not because she was a bad person, but that sadly she had probably learnt that her behaviour was acceptable because that was what she had experienced herself (I suspect my mother then went on to mention what she had witnessed to the school). That moment has stayed with me as a powerful reminder: the shame a child experiences ends up negatively impacting on their relationships with those around them, with potentially serious consequences not just in childhood but for the rest of their lives.
And what about the impact on those doing the shaming? These wise words make a powerful point: “I think we can all agree that feeling shame is a painful experience. What we often don’t realise is that perpetuating shame is equally painful.” (Brown)
Moving away from shame-based parenting is not just better for our children, and our societies, but it is better for us too. We owe it to ourselves to find ways to move beyond the traditional parenting models based on shame and control and find new ways to connect with our children as we model authentic, vulnerable, wholehearted living.
Moving away from shame-based parenting towards connection and empathy
Brown believes we can all learn to minimise the negative effects of shame by fighting against the shaming culture we inhabit and teaching our children resilience. Part of this is through our parenting, moving away from shame-based parenting towards parenting based on connection and empathy.
You can do this by:
- Using language that is free from emotion, labelling the behaviour and it’s effects, rather than the child: : “I will not let you hit your brother. Hitting hurts people.” rather than “You were very bad to hit your brother.” and “Pushing is not OK. Your sister was hurt when you pushed her.” rather than “You naughty girl! Pushing is not kind, look what you’ve done to your sister.” Telling a child that they did something wrong allows the possibility for change. Telling a child that they are naughty or bad labels them in a way that takes away the potential for change.
- Remembering that using shaming language is a form of verbal punishment. You can read about why we don’t use punishment in any form and what we do instead here.
- Not making children responsible for your own feelings: “You may not draw on the walls. Here is some paper if you want to draw, pens go on paper.” rather than “Look at what you’ve done! You’ve made mummy feel very sad and cross.” It’s worth remembering that as adults, we are in charge of our own emotions and our own emotional wellbeing and resilience. We will all be triggered by different things, but it is not fair to lay responsibility for our feelings at the feet of our young children.
- Looking to empathise and connect with your child’s feelings: “I can see you were feeling frustrated when he took your toy, and that made you want to hit him. But hitting is never OK.” rather than “That was very naughty, say sorry at once.” Helping our children to be emotionally literate and understand their feelings and triggers is key to raising resilient children.
- Holding a safe space for your children’s emotions – even when they are loud and uncomfortable – and not seeking to minimise their feelings, “shush” them, distract them, or tell them it’s ok or that there’s nothing to be sad or angry about, as this may inadvertently teach children to be ashamed of their feelings and bottle them up, leading to becoming withdrawn or outbursts of rage. This is especially important for parents of boys, who will have to work hard to counter society’s message that men and boys should be “tough” and that emotions are feminine (Brown writes convincingly about the different ways that women and men experience shame). This blog post will help you support your child as they navigate big feelings.
- Giving children opportunities to problem solve. Avoid stepping in too early when there are disagreements between siblings or friends (keeping close by to ensure that you can swiftly step in if things escalate), or always coming up with solutions to their problems. This also includes letting children make mistakes, and letting them struggle without rushing in to protect or “save” them. Offering children the opportunity to collaborate and problem solve is a precious gift, and is important if they are to develop resilience.
- Instilling a sense of belonging in your children. This means embracing them along with all of their quirks and imperfections, whatever they may be. Our children may turn out to be good at different things to us, or have different interests or tastes, but it is our job as parents to give them space to be who they truly are rather than who we might want or hope for them to be. This sounds obvious, but can be hard in practice. How would I feel if my daughter decided not to go to University? What if she grows up to be really interested in sports? Or became devoutly religious (my husband and I are both secular)? None of these would be bad, of course, but the idea of raising a child who makes different choices or has different interests can certainly challenge us when working to remain judgement-free.
- Apologising when you loose your cool. It’s OK not to be a perfect parent all of the time – no one is. But rather than seeing an outburst or lack of patience as a failure on your part, embrace it as an opportunity to model an authentic apology and show that everyone has to work on their responses and emotions at times. This post gives practical advice on keeping calm and how to reconnect after losing your cool.
Although shifting the way we engage with and discipline our children is vital, increasingly I believe that it’s not enough. If teaching our children resilience is partly through moving away from shame-based parenting, then it’s also partly through how we show up for our children. What kind of behaviour are we modelling to them? Are we showing up as courageous, authentic, wholehearted humans?
As Brown says: “Who are are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting… In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be? If we want our children to love and accept who they are, it’s our job to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgement in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives – can only be learned if they are experienced.”
This summarises beautifully why peaceful parenting is not about trying to change our children’s behaviour, or even about their behaviour at all. At the core of peaceful parenting is working on ourselves as humans so that we can show up as authentic, compassionate, and peaceful parents. There is no point in listing out the values I hope to pass on to my daughter – integrity, creativity, the courage to be vulnerable and take risks, kindness, a sense of social justice, the ability to ask for help and to offer help in return, a strong belief in her own self worth – if I am not demonstrating them myself first.
There are no quick-fixes to this. I often write that parenting how we want to parent and showing up as the kind of human that we want to be in the world is a journey, but if it is a journey then it is an unusual one as there can be no real “end” destination. The journey is all there is, as we move slowly, day after day, month after month, year after year, towards being the sort of person we truly want to be.
Where can I find out more?
If you want to find out more about shame, vulnerability, and their impact on us I really recommend reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown – it is so powerful and thought provoking, and her chapter on parenting is excellent.
When it comes to the effect shame can have on our children (and much more) Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille makes a wonderful companion to Brown. They’re both excellent reads, and a valuable addition to any parent’s library.
I also love Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn – it’s my number one favourite parenting book (possibly just favourite book full stop) and one I think genuinely has the potential to be world-changing. You can really see Kohn’s influence on Grille when reading their work. If you haven’t read it, I cannot speak highly enough of it. Get hold of a copy as soon as you can!
THE PEACEFUL HOME
Being a peaceful parent is about fundamentally changing our mindset as parents, challenging the way we were raised and the traditional models of parentings which surround us, and working on ourselves to be able to show up in the way our children – and we – deserve.
This is important work but it can be hard at times, and it is even harder without support. We are not meant to do it alone. That is why I have created The Peaceful Home, a private membership group where you will be supported by me and other like-minded parents every step of the way of your peaceful parenting journey.
Each month you will have access to:
- A video workshop on a different topic related to peaceful parenting, mindset and inner work, and gentle discipline
- A PDF workbook to accompany each topic filled with information, practical ideas, questions for you to work through alone or with a partner, and journalling and reflection prompts
- A curated ‘reading’ list of blogs, books, research, articles and podcast episodes
- A live Q&A video
- Weekly guided group discussions
- Bonus interviews and content
- A whole lot of support and guidance from me and other like-minded parents to work through any bumps that come up in your journey
Group membership opens on the 30th September for 48 hours, so be sure to make a note if you want to join a group of like-minded peaceful parents who will walk beside you every step of your journey..
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!