By Chick Moorman
Author of Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility
Larry and Corrina Johnson took their children on a trip this summer. No, they didn't visit Mt. Rushmore or the Grand Canyon. Fenway Park, the Field Museum, and the Mackinaw Bridge weren't part of the itinerary either. In fact, the Johnson family never left home. The trip their children experienced was delivered at the kitchen table. They received a full blown, all expenses paid, guilt trip delivered by Larry Johnson and lovingly supported by his wife, Corinna.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Larry said to his nine-year old twins to begin their summer excursion down guilt trip lane. "You haven't done anything of value all summer. All you do is lay around watching television, eating junk food, and leaving messes in the family room. Your poor mother works her fingers to the bone cleaning up after you. Don't you have any respect or level of feeling for your mother? If you do, you don't show it. She's a good woman and doesn't deserve to be treated the way you treat her. Do you see her gray hairs? Where do you suppose those come from? You're going to be the death or your mother the way you ignore her efforts. She loves you so much and you treat her like she's invisible. If anything ever happened to her, you'd be sorry. She's not going to be around forever you know. Sometimes she can't sleep at night from worrying about you two. I hope you're proud of yourselves because I'm not. Now, I expect to see a radical change in your behavior starting right now. Go over ad give your mother a hug and show her how much you love her. Go on, do it now."
Larry Johnson did what a lot of parents do to manipulate their children into behaving in a desired fashion. He dispensed a huge dose of guilt.
Parents who use shame and guilt as a motivator do so because they believe that the technique is needed to encourage children to change. The idea is that if children can be shamed into feeling guilty, they will change their behavior and do what their parents desire.
There are times when shaming works and produces the behavior we want from out children. But at what price? Children who are shamed regularly come to believe that the shame is justified, that they must have earned it, and that they deserve it. They develop such core beliefs as "I'm no good," "I'm not enough," "I'm wrong," and "I'm not worthwhile." Children who have these core beliefs see themselves as shameful and act in accordance with their beliefs.
This negative belief system tends to attract increased shaming from the significant adults in their lives, which reinforces their negative core beliefs. These children often get caught up in a self-depreciating cycle of behaviors and parental responses that is difficult to exit.
Shame and guilt often backfire. Their use produces resistance and resentment. Children realize on some level they are being manipulated, pushed, and controlled by parent talk that shames. Manipulation breeds resentment. Pushing calls forth pushing back. Control is resented.
Parents who use shame in an effort to dispense guilt don't always do it as blatantly as Larry Johnson did with his twins. Parents often do guilt tripping so subtly that they are unaware that their parent talk is shame based. If you are using any of the following parent talk with your children, you are inserting shame into your language patterns.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"That will make me feel bad."
"What will the neighbors think?"
"I'm glad your dead grandfather isn't here to see this."
"I can't sleep at night worrying about you."
"Someone who loves their mother (father) would never do that."
"Jesus wouldn't like that."
"You should know better."
"And you call yourself a Christian (...Methodist, Baptist, etc.)."
"Your behavior gives me headaches."
"God sees everything you do."
"You've really disappointed your grandmother."
"How would you feel if no one sent you a birthday card?"
If you hear yourself using any of the sentences above, there is an alternative.
Instead of dispensing a shame-based communication, use a style of parent talk that is open, honest, and direct. Present choices to your children. Explain what happens if they choose a certain behavior and what happens if they don't. Allow them to choose and then experience the legitimate consequences of their behavior. Children learn more from a caring adult who helps them to evaluate their choices and the results that follow than they do from one who shames and continually lays guilt.
If you have strong feelings about a behavior or desired response, tell the child directly. Explain the reasons for your feelings. Step out of the resistance-resentment cycle by telling children exactly what you expect and why.
"I'm angry about the broken window, and you will need to find a way to pay for it" is more effective than "You should have known better." "Looks like you have chosen to work with a tutor this marking period. The two D's demonstrate that you can use some extra time and help in those subjects" is healthier than the guilt-laying "You really disappointed us with this report card."
Refuse to be one of those parents who cause children to feel shame and guilt for their actions. Communicate honestly without sneaking shame into the equation. Stay centered in your efforts to create respectful, responsible children by modeling those attributes in your behavior and in your parent talk.
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