Shaming Is Not Discipline
Parenting is hard, and anyone that tells you different either hasn’t been a parent or isn’t telling you the whole story. Phrases like the terrible twos or threes and the ferocious fours really don’t help to instill confidence in parents, either!
Sometimes, even the most grounded and calm parent can find their children’s behaviour challenging. It is hard to know how to respond appropriately to a frustrating behaviour, and how to rein it in in a way that will maintain your child’s connection with you and motivate better behaviour next time.
Traditional ways of managing children's behaviour include smacking, threatening, spoiling, and shaming. Professionals have since debunked all of these methods as ineffective and harmful. You may be thinking, ‘I don’t do that to my kids!’.
And smacking or spoiling are pretty easy to recognise, but most parents who shame are not aware they are doing so or of the impact it can have on their children.
When we shame someone, we punish them by creating feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Shaming can come in the form of: blaming (‘this is all your fault’); judging (‘you’re acting like a baby right now. Grow up!); disapproving of their actions, choices or accomplishments (‘you didn’t try hard enough!’); comparing them with others (‘no-one else your age sucks their thumb’), or embarrassing or humiliating them with put downs either privately (‘that was stupid! You should know better’) or publicly (making teens stand in public holding signs stating their misdemeanours, or posting images on social media). Children are so invested in parental approval that a pursed lip, a raised eyebrow or a slight turning away could hurt their feelings.
Shaming can make a child (or an adult!) feel bad or wrong, guilty and ashamed, and less than worthy for feeling as they do or for not living up to your expectations. And because children can't distinguish between their impulses, actions and themselves, shaming condemns the child, not the behaviour, and makes a child feel bad about him or herself. This leads to poor self-esteem and reduced empathy. Ultimately, it leads them to self-protectively disconnect from those whose love they need the most - you, the parent. This form of pyschological 'splitting' or disconnection may have far reaching consequences into their adult lives.
But you can give feedback and effect behavioural change in children without shaming them. By being self-aware, you can communicate your expectations and build (not damage) the connection with your children. You’ll also help them to become considered and self-aware listeners and communicators, and to form empathy, compassion, and respectful behaviour. Some phrases I often find myself sharing with client parents are:
‘The hand that feeds cannot be the hand that hits.’
‘Lips that praise cannot be lips that criticises.’
The following techniques summarise current best practice, and are based on years of research and studies.
Focus on the behaviour, not the child
See your child’s behaviour as separate from your child. Address their behaviour, not them personally. This will help them understand it’s their behaviour, not them, that you take issue with. For example, instead of saying ‘You’re a naughty boy,’ you could say, ‘Hitting is not good behaviour. Can you ask your sister to move instead?’ This last sentence also includes an example of redirecting – the simple and very effective technique of redirecting your child to appropriate behaviour.
Ensure your child feels emotionally secure with you
When disciplining, a child’s sense of safety must not to be compromised. This is not just about physical safety, your child needs to feel emotionally secure with you all times, knowing that you will not reject them or withdraw away from them. In moments of stress, parents may think withholding love, affection or attention is ok. It is not. The golden rule of attachment parenting is relevant here: always treat your children in the way you would like to be treated. Traditional strategies like shaming simply do not work. They are a way of punishing your child – imposing something unpleasant in response to behaviour you deem wrong or unacceptable. The word ‘discipline’, on the other hand, comes from the Latin verb disciplina, meaning to teach or guide.
Walk away when you feel out of control
If you think you’re going to lose control of your emotions, then walk away momentarily. This is not the right time to dish out discipline. Calm down, think it out, then re-engage. When a parent loses control, it’s sometimes because their child’s poor behaviour has made them feel like a bad parent. If you are critical towards your child, it may be that you are also quite self-critical internally (Read more about your self criticism). Don’t act on this – good parenting is not about you, it’s about the child.
Act the way you want your child to act
Little eyes watch you, day in and day out, so make sure you’re role modelling the behaviours you want your children to repeat. Think beyond the parent-child relationship to other areas of your life you might unconsciously be using shaming language and behaviours. How do you talk to your partner? To other family members? Or about others, in front of your child? Your child will repeat your behaviours.
Implement age appropriate steps
The world is a wonderful place to explore for toddlers. Guide little hands by naming 'soft touch' for faces or animals, 'yes touch' for safe objects and 'no touch' for off-limit items. Distract your toddlers attention from unwanted behaviours by calling out their name and divert their attention to something you prefer them to do instead. Limit setting is a good way to begin helping your child internalise boundaries. Use a firm tone of voice when you need to set a limit and if that does not work, remove child or object. Your child may cry in protest but do not remove yourself at this point. Stay engaged to sooth, comfort and softly say, 'That was a no'. For older children, use time out sparingly. Time outs is best done in the same place/room the undesirable behaviour occurred. Remain within close proximity so your child is not distressed by separation. Allow your child to be angry with you. You are teaching your child their feelings are acceptable and 'good Mummy' (when you hug them in bed) is also 'bad Mummy' (when you stop them from doing something they want). For older children with defiant behaviours, there are always triggers. Understand and tune in to what is promoting behaviours. Avoid situations where behaviours are exhibited. Set your child up for good behaviour by not cramming too much in the day, maintain regular eating and sleep times. Establish achievable, fair and clear expectations. Offer options for older children. Discuss, negotiate rules when they are older (teenagers). Your may be thinking where do I find time to do all this? Well, parenting is a choice, your choice. Your role as parent is to provide consistent care and love, all the while fostering a loving bond. It is the quality of the bond, the relationship that sets your child up to be secure, confident adults.
Stop and reflect
Take a step back and try to think objectively about your child’s unwanted or bad behaviour. Are they trying to tell you something? A child’s behaviour – good, or bad – is informative. It is their way of communicating; of showing what’s really going on for them at any particular time, be it at home or school.
Take time to think about how you were disciplined as a child. Did your parents ever shame you? How did you feel afterwards? Think about this before disciplining and always protect the relationship you have with your children first. Ask yourself, ‘How will my child feel if I say this or do that?’
Allow and expect children to make mistakes
One of the worst things parents can do is to try to force children to comply to strict and unbending routine and rules allowing little to no room for them to make mistakes. Making mistakes is how we learn, and you need to give your children enough space to try low and medium risk things, and to fail and succeed. Your job is to praise and encourage when they succeed and to comfort, soothe and guide them when they fail.
Build a secure attachment with your children
Are you giving your children the time and attention they need? Spending time and paying attention to your children is not just about keeping them safe, it is about bonding and attachment. The bonds you form with them have far reaching implications, well into their adulthood. It’s the foundation for all of their future relationships. No matter how your child behaves, make your words kind and loving particularly when addressing poor behaviour. Remind yourself – the type of relationship you have with your children is the most precious gift you will ever give them. Always protect that gift of how you relate to them.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Parenting is hard and not many of us are handed blueprints on how and what is effective parenting. If you feel you have made mistakes, take heart and seek professional help. It is not too late to repair, create a secure and loving bond with your children. Call 0400 999 918.