It’s a common complaint from parents: “Our kids spend too much time on their screens, and they don’t listen to us when we try to set boundaries.” Some parents feel so helpless about this—and other parenting issues—that they resort to parenting techniques that seem creative but only serve to undermine the authority they’re attempting to “take back.”
A particularly inelegant example of this sort of desperate parenting was displayed on YouTube recently, as a mother bellowed her manifesto while gleefully brandishing a shotgun in her backyard. Her children looked on, studiously unimpressed, as she blew their cell phones off a tree stump, one by one. Dad’s more passive role was to record the video for posterity and collect the shards, which he then returned to the stump so Mother could finish obliterating them with a sledgehammer.
Of course, this could simply have been an ill-conceived stunt aimed at creating an income stream from a viral video, but unfortunately public shaming is not a rare tactic in some parenting styles. True, it’s not always carried out online, but it is no less harmful to family relationships when we expose our children’s sins for all to see in their more intimate, real-life public spaces.
Most parents who use shaming as a technique really do love their children; they believe they’re exercising a form of “tough love” that will save their children in the long run by cultivating a sense of guilt for inappropriate behaviors. Their own parents may have used similar techniques with them, and their survival seems proof enough that the techniques work. However, there is a world of difference between surviving and thriving, just as there is a world of difference between the effects of guilt and the effects of shame.
What are those differences?
First it may be helpful to look at the differences between guilt and shame. While both are emotions we feel when we’ve done something wrong, and both may prompt feelings of remorse and regret, there is a huge difference in how these feelings are brought about and in our reactions to them. Shame involves an aspect of exposure and promotes feelings along the lines of “I am a bad person,” while guilt encourages feelings of “I did a bad thing.”
Why would you want one result and not the other? “I am a bad person” leaves little room for the potential to change, while “I did a bad thing” opens one up to the ability to feel contrite along with the hope that personal change is possible. But an even more important aspect of guilt versus shame is that guilt allows for the belief that repair is possible—repair of the relationship, but also restoration of the guilty party’s reputation and sense of positive life meaning. Shame, on the other hand, tends to foster defensive responses: a tendency to hide, to blame someone else—and even to become aggressive.
Despite the fact that parents may believe their love for the child is not in question, when a child is shamed for his or her actions in public, there are now other onlookers involved. The child cannot know whether his or her reputation and relationship with these others can be repaired. Even the parent-child relationship may be damaged more than the parent realizes. Anger is a common reaction to permanent loss of something cherished: and what do we want our children to cherish more than a reputation for appropriate behavior? If we provoke this kind of anger frequently, we are likely to build a resentment in our children that undermines our influence permanently.
Ironically, some parents use public shaming as a way to teach children the importance of a good reputation. But rather than privately addressing the problem (as the self-controlled, mature party) and working with the child to protect his or her reputation during the learning process, they actually cut their child’s reputation to ribbons—sometimes permanently, particularly if they chronicle the child’s failures online.
Of course, some children do have higher levels of resilience than others, and any child may survive a few shaming episodes. But this brings us to the difference between surviving and thriving. Returning to the YouTube mother for a moment, she’s depicted as desperately trying to teach her children restraint when it comes to screen time and discernment about what behaviors are appropriate online. One or more of her children may eventually get over the anger their body language plainly displays, and they may learn these lessons. They may be able to ignore her example, which directly contradicts what she is trying to teach (she is clearly unrestrained, and undiscerning about what is appropriate behavior). They may grow up to be reasonably balanced and mentally healthy. In other words, they will likely survive.
On the other hand, imagine that instead of destroying expensive electronics (whether essentially hers or not), she had taught her children how to treat valuable property—beginning by setting a good example herself? What if she encouraged restraint and respect by first modeling it and then reinforcing any first steps they made toward displaying it, no matter how small?
One of the most common mistakes we make as parents is to forget that we can’t just eliminate inappropriate behaviors; we also have to instill appropriate replacement behaviors, and that requires positive reinforcement. Unfortunately this takes our full attention because it’s not always easy to recognize the first steps children take toward the behaviors we’re trying to teach. Often we don’t notice a behavior until it bothers us, and by then we’ve missed a great many opportunities to reinforce the positive opposite behavior.
If we take the time to recognize the positive behaviors, however, we will find that over time the negative behaviors will become easier to change because the relationship we have with our children will motivate more pliability. When we spend more time parenting in a positive mode and as a positive role model, we’re less likely to need to “take back” our role as parents, because we’d never have let go of it to begin with.
In any case, even if we have somehow lost our effectiveness as authority figures, playing the public “shame game,” whether online or off, is not going to get it back. Regardless of the technology, when our children seem to be on the verge of tarnishing their reputation, we can apply positive, timeless parenting strategies that don’t include pushing that reputation off a cliff. We only need to be willing to put in the time and effort to discover those strategies.