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It was the summer I turned 13.
I had blown off my friend’s birthday party, a swimming pool party at his house with about 20 kids. It was the last place I wanted to be.
I was the classic late bloomer. Shy and self-conscious, small and skinny, I was left behind in the great puberty race of early adolescence. So, I took the easy way out and went shopping with my mom instead.
Except it didn’t turn out so easy. My dad found out about the party and was furious. We lived in a small town, and he took it as a reflection on himself. I hadn’t gone to the party because I didn’t feel good about myself, which got markedly worse as I received a healthy dose of anger and disappointment over what was wrong with me for not going.
The episode was capped off by me having to go to my friend’s house and apologize for blowing off the party and “being dysfunctional.”
It was an experience I haven’t forgotten.
Shaming is a common parenting technique. It’s not that my dad was trying to be malicious—he thought he was doing the best he could. We often do what we know, and he took cues from his own childhood.
Sometimes shaming is subtle. We don’t even know we’re doing it. Every time we tell our boys to “stop being babies” and “toughen up,” we’re shaming. When we tell them “boys don’t cry,” or to “be more like the kid down the street,” we’re shaming. Even though it’s not what we intend, the message is always the same—they’re not good enough.
As parents, there are several reasons why we shame. We might be disappointed that our child isn’t living up to our expectations. If we aren’t comfortable with our own emotions, we certainly won’t be comfortable dealing with our child’s. We might feel overwhelmed and frustrated or feel we aren’t doing a good job.
Other times, in a misguided attempt to ease our childrens’ pain, we dismiss their feelings as not a big deal or we trivialize their experiences. The result can be children with unmet emotional needs who feel unimportant.
I felt that way as a child and ended up being withdrawn and isolated. And that didn’t end for decades, dragging my self-esteem issues from childhood to adulthood. Shaming is powerful, and we underestimate how sensitive children can be to it, and the extent of the damage we can do as parents.
The struggle is real. As a parent to an 11-year-old boy, I battle with these issues even as I write about them. They can creep up when I’m tired or stressed or just not feeling well.
When we slip up and use shaming behavior, we lose the opportunity to teach our kids about vulnerability, empathy, and imperfection. The good news is that parenting provides endless opportunities for us to improve and step up our parenting game.
Here are some things I’ve learned as a parent in my quest to avoid shaming behavior:
Learn to be aware when we’re triggered and shut it down.
I work on this constantly. And it’s f*cking difficult. I’ve realized that more often than not when I earn a parenting fail it’s because I was having a tough day to begin with. When I’m overstressed and short on patience, I know I’m in the danger zone. The slightest indiscretion on his part is met with a reaction that’s out of proportion.
I’ve learned to be aware of when I feel triggered, and try to give myself some extra space or extra self-care. And still, some days it takes every ounce of strength I have to not take my day out on him.
We can try to remember that they are children.
They’ll get overtired, and over-hungry. They’ll think they know more than we do. They’ll get grumpy with an attitude and push us to our limits.
We’ll get frustrated because we are dealing with all the stress that comes along with being adults as well as parents. And we’ll forget that they have kid-sized brains, and do things because they just don’t know any better or can’t control themselves. They aren’t trying to be bad people, they’re just children, and they’ll make plenty of mistakes. And, by the way, we’ll make them too.
We can do our best to understand their behavior.
Instead of reacting, we can be calm. Instead of snap judgments, we can try to understand them. Sometimes, they’re just making kid-sized mistakes. But other times, they can be suffering from shame or lack of self-esteem. It’s our job to figure it out, and it takes patience and communication skills to do it.
We have to provide a safe space for communication with our kids. When our kids say, “I don’t know,” it often means, “I don’t feel safe enough to tell you.” When my dad was demanding an explanation as to why I blew off the party, I told him I didn’t know. I was already feeling ashamed and I thought my real answer would either be dismissed or make him angrier.
Replace shame with empathy and compassion.
Let’s ditch any shaming behaviors we have and use empathy and compassion instead.
We know how hard growing up is—we’ve all been there. Instead of telling me to “get over it,” I wish my dad had sat down with me and told me he understood and that he was always there to talk.
While I never heard it, you can be sure that my son has. He never has to feel alone with his experiences. Shame loves silence, and the best way to combat shame is to talk openly and honestly. Kids won’t always be comfortable with their emotions, and having these conversations can be difficult, but we can do our best to let them know we’ve been there, we understand, and that they’re not alone.
Perfection is the enemy—let it go.
Growing up can be damn hard, but so is parenting.
Nothing feels worse than a parenting fail, but we have to learn to let it go. There are so many opportunities to get right. We want to be consistent, but we don’t have to be perfect. Rather than beat ourselves up—my therapist reminds me to “put the bat down”—we just have to let it go.
I’ve found that owning my mistakes with my son helps. Acknowledging and accepting our missteps provides our kids with an opportunity to learn that making mistakes doesn’t make us bad people unworthy of love and belonging.
It just makes us the flawed, imperfectly perfect people that we are.
“I think we can all agree that feeling shame is an incredibly painful experience. What we often don’t realize is that perpetuating shame is equally as painful, and no one does that with the precision of a partner or a parent.” ~ Brené Brown