Coffee and Conversation: On Shaming Children

Grab a cuppa and a comfy seat, and let’s chat a while.

It’s Monday again – time for Coffee and Conversation.

When I was six, my family was driving on an interstate highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I  realized that each  car held  people living their lives, lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to see what those lives were, and to share my own…

Here, each Monday, I strive to reach that understanding through offering ideas and tidbits from my life.  Settle in for a while, and share something of yours.

Public shaming of children has become something of a trend, in the last few years. Television and the Internet are filled with images and videos of kids made to wear signs proclaiming their “crimes” in their own handwriting. Parents are posting shaming punishments on their kids’ social media profile pages, for the sole purpose of embarrassing them.

I was shamed in private throughout much of my own childhood, and, on occasion, publicly, too. There was no social media, then, so I was spared these incidents “going viral” (a phrase that didn’t exist, in that sense, yet).I can still hear the things my parents used to keep me from getting “too big for my britches”. I still feel their sting, and the self-doubt they fostered.

Kids, unshamed.

I was intended to trust my parents, and to believe what they told me:

“Hoe can you do something so stupid when you’re supposed to be so smart?”

“You’re just existing.”

“That’s a pipe dream.”

“You have no common sense.”

“You can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“You do everything backwards.”

“You’re lazy.”

Maybe these don’t seem so bad. It’s likely I’m not the only member of my generation who heard these indictments so often that they became the background of our lives. I’m probably not the only one who still hears them, in my parents’ voices, see the scorn and anger in their eyes. Even at 44 years old I can still feel the sharp stab of them.

For years, I believed them, or fought not to, and the belief and struggle kept me from forming my own beliefs about myself, framing my own journey, and accepting that I am imperfect, flawed…and so is every other human. It’s taken nearly my whole life to love myself as I am, and see myself as worthy.

Shaming children in public ways reminds my of the pillory, the stockade, The Scarlet Letter. We no longer use these techniques on adults, in America, presumably because they’ve been deemed inhumane. It may bring about resentment, bitterness, rebellion, perhaps even estrangement, as the wedge it creates drives parents and children away from one another.

I knew I was being manipulated, that my feelings were being cast aside or wounded so that I would do as my parents wanted me to. There was something in it that wasn’t honest, denying me the right to express my own perspective. It was minimizing, and assumed that their position was the only correct one.

I want something different for my own children. I want them to listen and consider my viewpoint because they trust me, and understand that my experiences and perspectives might give them valuable insights. I want them to trust themselves, too, to know their own strengths and understand that we all have things we aren’t naturally good at, and to know where their path diverges from mine.

When they hear my voice in their heads, I want it to be reminding them that they have spent a lifetime developing their judgment, that they are competent and capable of learning, that they are as worthy as anyone else, and that they can ask me for help without fear of being shamed.

I don’t have that, with my parents. Shaming remains a part of their interactions. They still try to control me with it, and seem not to understand that my goals are not theirs. That’s put a rift in our relationship that might be beyond healing. I go elsewhere for honest, rational consideration and advice. My parents aren’t interested in trying to understand what I value, and why.

That’s not the relationship I want with Jeremiah and Annalise. I’m not interested in controlling them, or in making sure they obey me. I want them to use their own judgment. and I see my role as helping them learn to do that. I facilitate this by giving them information and insight they may not have, with the benefit of wider experience and deeper perspective, and by helping them to understand social conventions, laws, courtesy, and acceptance of others.

Honesty and mutual respect help us to accomplish this. Shame and control would be heading in the wrong direction.

What about you? Were you shamed as a child? How did it feel? Do you use shame in your parenting? Why do you, or do you not? Do you have an opinion about the current trend of public child-shaming? I’m interested in all views, so long as they are respectfully expressed, and do not demean children. Please join in the conversation!  

The relationship I want….with two amazing people.


  1. Watching someone shame their child makes me feel dirty and horrible and guilty all at once–I want to jump in there and stop it, but I feel like that would make the situation worse. How sad that these patterns keep re-establishing themselves. All we can hope for is that some kids come out of it like you did, as determinedly loving parents. Or maybe some super-public role models, a la Oprah, might have an effect on some folks’ parenting styles…but I doubt it.

    • Gretchen,

      I know that feeling. I’ve had it myself. And you’re right…a parent who lives with that pattern, or who has become frustrated enough to fall into it, isn’t likely to handle confrontation well.

      I often carry some sticker sheets in my purse, and, when we see something unkind being done to a child in our travels, I will ask the kids if they want to offer the other child a sheet. The parents don’t tend to see another child as confrontational, and just the asking seems to defuse the situation.

      I’m also prone to commenting, with a smile, in a way that tries to show the parents that their child has real emotion, and is expressing it in a way that I still sometimes feel like doing, even as an adult. That tends to lead to a break in the action….but not always.

      I am hoping to raise children who remain compassionate and kind into adulthood.

      I do believe that public figures bringing these types of behavior into the open does help. It’s silence and acceptance of the status-quo that seem to give power to these types of patterns.

      So happy you stopped by! =)

    • Gretchen,

      WordPress ate my first reply, so here’s another.

      I know that feeling you describe. I’ve developed a couple of non-confrontational approaches to try to defuse these situations if I see them.

      The kids will sometimes offer stickers or other little trinkets to the other child. The parents tend not to see this as confrontational, it gives the child another focus, and tends to defuse the situation.

      I will also, if a child is upset and the parents are shaming rather than attending, that, even at 44, I sometimes feel that way, and that being a kid OR a grownup can be hard. I’ve seen a few parents really stop and think when I say that, and, almost always, they get a little softer toward their children.

      I do believe that every time these patterns are brought into the light, in large ways or small, they lose a little of their power. Silence is what feeds these patterns.

      I am very happy you stopped in to share. And, if all else fails, a smile and a direct gaze can go a long way toward helping a child feel seen.

  2. Like Debra, I try to buffer the Boodle from things I write and do online. I expose him more than I probably should, but I hope the ways I do are not shaming to him. He’s his own person… Dan and I still have more experience than he does, but we’ve no right to make him feel bad for that fact–he’ll have his own specialties as he grows and he’ll still need the support of others as he lives.

    But shaming people, not just children, has been a tool for ages for a reason… it works for those who use it–perhaps it doesn’t work they way some would like or in a nice way, but it works. Humanity doesn’t tend to surrender the tools that work. 😦

    • Eden,

      I don’t try to buffer Miah and Lise as much as I try to respect their wishes. They know they are welcome to read and look at what I’m posting and have posted whenever they like, and they often do. Many times, I will ask at the time I snap a picture or they say something I might want to quote whether it’s something I can share, and where or how I can share it. If they say no, that’s that.

      As he gets older, your son (I can’t use the nickname; that’s not who he is, to me, but I won’t use his given name here, if you don’t want that, hence the “your son” which also seems odd…hmmmn). may find it embarrassing to have been referred to by a pet name he may well outgrow. Personally, I have never liked any nickname that carried a “The” before it. I have never enjoyed being called “the wife” either – it feels like I’m just part of a list: the car, the house, the coffeepot, the dog, the wife….

      On the other hand, that might never bother him at all!

      While it is undoubtedly true that I have lived more years than either of my children have, it’s not true that I have more experience than them in every area. Both are far more experienced Minecraft players than I am likely to ever be, and both have most or all of a lifetime of experience of living with the reality of a brother who died. I have no experience at all of that. They know what it is to have parents who put respecting them very high on their priorities list – neither Jim nor I had that experience in our childhoods. They have lots of experience on living life without the structure of school around it,while school got into our brains, and we carry it everywhere…

      I think that is true of most kids – they have experiences their parents don’t, but adults tend to not really notice that, as though what they perceive of the child’s life, from the outside, is all there is (and I’m not saying that you are that way, just that there seems to be a cultural tendency to negate the value and reality of children’s inner lives).

      When adults make children feel bad for not having the volume of life experience adults have, they seem to forget that wewere ALL children, once, and all learning how to live in the world and our society. As you know, I’ve always been bothered when adults expect children to possess levels of self-control that they lack. Teasing and mockery are poor social interactions, and, when parents use them, they’re most likely reflecting the adults who did that to them, when they were children. It’s another of those cycles I want to explore, in hopes that someone might recognize it in their own lives, and learn how to stop that cycle with them, so it doesn’t carry forward in their family.

      I see your point about shame as a tool, and how it can seem as though it’s working – but I think that effectiveness is often a delusion of the perpetrator. In mycase, for instance, saying I did everything backwards did absolutely nothing to change the fact that I was utterly left-handed in a right-handed family with a prejudice.

      It did, however, make me tentative, clumsy, and self-conscious. My parents’ frequent jibes also led my sister to write a highly insulting essay about how I held a fork, and to read ot aloud to her senior creative writing class – and you know how small our school was. I was mortified, and deeply shamed.

      I think shame can give an outward sense of superiority and control, but that that is often deceptive. I think it’s a tool used by those who never learned better ones, or who never learned that everyone has their own personal level of integrity, and their own value.

      I also think it comes with the potential for huge degrees of backlash – estrangements such as mine from my still-shaming parents, elder abuse, school shootings, pants worn so low underwear shows, and the continuation of the shaming to the next generation.

      I think it’s less an effective tool than it is a sign of how broken we are.

      Thanks so much for posting, and I’m sure we’ll talk more on this. This was very valuable for me, because I will be exploring Parenting (or Life) Tool Boxes in this feature over the next several weeks.

      • Definitely a lot to consider here… I need to grok the whole a bit more, but wanted to note about the “buffering” since it touched on Debra’s comment… We do buffer the Boodle (and that’s, at the moment, what he likes for us to call him, even to the point of telling others to call him that, such as the camp directors, etc.; the nickname with surely change over time, and yes, he’ll may find it somewhat embarrassing–though he may not, as he’s quite comfortable with who he is–but for now, I can only in courtesy call him what he wishes to be called)….

        Anyway.. distraction… the buffering… It’s a matter of life. As part of my life, I find it had to simply exclude our time together or the impact of living as a family as opposed to being out on my own for for times (rare as they are… I’m still part of this family, and he and Dan are “present” in it)… It’s that sharing thing. It’s also because of who the Boodle is… very private and yet outgoing and demonstrative… the star of the stage with his quiet life in the dressing room… At least that’s the person he’s allowed me to see. I know he has other faces for the world, but that’s also part of who he is…

        And so, Dan and I try to be there to make sure he has a safe stage to present himself to the world when he wishes, but like good theatre managers, we’re also going to make sure the doors to his dressing room work well, that the back door to the theatre has a decent lock so that strangers can’t just walk it from the back alley, that there are good refreshments available… That the Boodle can book his performances as he needs and we’ll be sure he gets his exposure…

        The analogy doesn’t work perfectly obviously. Some of it seems to controlled, but it’s not. We’re not his managers. We just maintain the venue, but we want it to be a place where he feels comfortable and happy to stay at.

        Think I’m rambling now… I need to reread what you said and absorb it more. Either way, yes, I love how this is getting me thinking.

        Thanks for sharing this conversation with me.

        • Sys,

          Actually, the analogy is very, very good. Especially for those who both enjoy being “on”, and who also need the privacy of a backstage hideout. I didn’t infer from that that you are managing him, but rather doing what I wish more parents would do – bending the world around his needs.

          Now that I’ve read it, I see that that’s very much what I do. Like so many other things, it’s become natural to give them as much exposure as they want, and not more. Miah is more private, and his activities tend to be more static in nature, so there are fewer pictures of him. His beauty is in depth, and tends to be most evident in private, one-on-one conversation that doesn’t translate well for an audience. Usually, I don’t try.

          Annalise – well, you know Annalise. She’s been performing her entire life. She loves the spotlight, and center stage. As she’s getting older, she’s choosing to keep more private, and I respect that. It’s not as much a conscious process,though, as it is an organic one – I have a sense of what they do and do not want to share, and what I will keep private for their sake (their struggles and mistakes, anything truly personal, our disagreements,unless they want to share). I never quote them without checking first; their words are their own.

          And Jim – although you know how important he is to me, and to the kids, he is often all but invisible on my blogs. Partly it’s that he is often working to earn the money that fuels our household and our activities, and, partly, it’s that he is a very, very private man, and it would make him uncomfortable to be brought out for display. I love him, I adore him, and we have a rich and lovely life together…which will remain largely invisible in my online world.

          In your case, he may never mind the nickname, or else he might. A few people I care for still use very old child nicknames of mine, and, although I don’t say so, it bothers me, because I am not that person. I just happen to care enough about the person to not want to make an issue of taking from them something they enjoy. It was just a thought I had that maybe hadn’t occurred to you, so I thought I’d mention it.

          I am so very glad you decided to join the conversation. Need another cuppa tea?

          • Another cuppa would be delightful… 😀

            And did you get my Facebook msg about the concert? Just curious. The Boodle asked.

          • Sys,

            I even have honey!

            I did get the message, but not until after the comment. As for today…well, we JUSTrealized thatNEUC starts on Thursday, and we’re hoping to getthere in time for the opening stuff…so the rest of this week will be focused on the preparations, I think…although I am up for a workout (don’t know if my knee can do the track, but I can do cardio and weights without trouble. And soup and salad at panera sounds perfect, for after, although I will have coffee, more likely than not. Maybe we try to keep the whole affair under three hours?

          • Under three hours sounds pretty close to perfect. I’m just trying to start a pattern, not a grand festivity…

            When ARE the opening ceremonies? We’re going to be there for Thursday night, but I’m not sure exactly when… Are we going to practice Old Friends together? If not, then we probably shouldn’t try this year.. We could do something else or nothing, depends on your mood. Not quite sure I’m ready emotionally to get on stage with less than a week’s practice.

          • We figured out the what, but not the when…2-3ish, maybe?

            I believe signing in starts at noon, with a welcome talk (Kahryn, I think), at 2pm. We have always missed that, and gotten there at night, but this year we’re all hoping to be there at the beginning.

            I think we can find some time to practice, or, if you’d rather, we can skip it. It’s more about feeling than perfection, at the talent show, but, if it makes you uncomfortable, I understand.

            I’ll let you know what room we’re in when we’re settled.

  3. I believe everything we do as a parent is in our child’s memory forevermore so we much chose our actions wisely, as you apparently know well. I refuse to use my kids names on my blog and won’t post pictures of them there or on twitter. I have my lists constricted on FB as to who can and cannot see them. Although, even there that isn’t safe and I’ll probably change that in the near future. I want my kids to know I have their best interests at heart. When they tell me not to post something I won’t. But if it’s something that would publicly shame or humiliate them I wouldn’t do it anyway. The point is to build them up and confidence is built upon a solid foundation of trust and understand. That’s the relationship I want to foster with my young ones.

    • Debra,

      I began my parenting life very differently that the way we live together now. I had absorbed a lot of my parents’ methods, and the mainstream parenting literature I was reading generally supported those methods.

      When my son was 7 and my daughter 4, I began to change, so I have the benefit of hearing their stories and comparisons and thoughts on both ways of being. I know for a fact that they remember, and that their memories affect them deeply.

      I (obviously!) don’t refuse to use my kids on my blogs or other social media sites – as a matter of fact, I have a family blog that is stuffed full of them. But they have the right, at any point, to tell me to stop posting, or change something I have posted, or to keep things private when they want them to.

      Right now, they are 9 and almost 12. I share more of my daughter than my son – she’s a born performer with a love of the camera, and sharing her life, while he is more naturally reserved, and not always willing to be photographed.

      I know that they may want me to share far less during the coming years, and that’s OK with me. My being a writer doesn’t give me carte blanche to share their lives. At this moment, though, both of them really enjoy contributing their words or images to posts that might help other kids have more peaceful lives.

      With safety as in everything else, it’s my goal that they will develop judgment, and trust their instincts. We talk often about what to share or not share, about ways to tell if someone is who they say they are (A hint – no predator is likely to pursue a child whose reply to an invitation to meet is, “I’ll ask my Mom to set it up.” Predators are looking for kids who are emotionally needy, so filling them up with love, acceptance, and support goes a long way…).

      Both are savvy users of social media, and both trust me enough to share their online activities with me. They use the Internet to broaden their world, rather than to seek fulfillment they can’t get here.

      I agree totally with your last statements. We’ve gone to considerable lengths to support our children where they are, to make what is important to them important to us, rather than attempting to impose our own agenda upon them. I think many parents do that – see their children as a project, and so are willing to put their idea of what they want for them ahead of the actual child, and his or her needs and wishes.

      It’s hard to trust someone, or feel they understand you, when you are aware they have an agenda (and, not only are most kids a lot more perceptive about that than many adults seem to realize; but I often witness adults talking about these agendas, literally over their childrens’ heads, as though the kids can’t hear).

      Like you said, that’s not the relationship I want with these two amazing people we get to live with! =)

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

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