I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately.
Funny enough, the topic hasn’t been on my mind because of weighty, life-or-death issues, but because my 7-year-old daughter wanted some candy.
To be fair, she always wants candy. And one day recently she came to me to confess: She had been sneaking sweets from the pantry without telling me.
My first instinct was to lecture her on honesty and self-control. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not with those little, tear-brimming eyes looking at me, lip-quivering, waiting on my verdict on whether she was still a “good girl.”
So instead, I hugged her. I thanked her for telling me something so difficult. I told her that I, too, have times I’m tempted to do something I know isn’t right because I want it so bad.
This is normal, I explained. She is normal.
And then, we came up with a solution. She decided that every time she felt temped to sneak candy, she would tell me. For the next few weeks, she did just that. Sometimes, I’d say, “Oh yeah, I want one too. Let’s have a little treat!” and sometimes I’d say, “Oh man, that’s so hard. I don’t think we should have any right now but how about some fruit?” Most times, I’d simply say, “Thank you so much for telling me,” and she would grin wildly and go back to playing.
This interchange had me thinking about all the kids who are struggling with issues way bigger than sneaking candy, and how so many of them are quietly wasting away in shame, afraid to tell their parents, afraid that if anyone knew their secret, they’d no longer be “good.”
Their secret shame could be pornography, drugs, drinking, sex or a million other things big or small. My daughter’s vice was candy, but I believe the process is the same. She could have stayed alone, isolated in her shame, her self-worth plummeting, convinced her parents would hate her if she ever told the truth.
But she chose to speak up. And I am convinced that my reaction in that small moment was a deciding moment in our relationship. Would I shame her? Or would I love her?
Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston who researches shame and vulnerability, has given some well-known TED Talks about the debilitating nature of shame, saying “it corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Sadly, I’ve seen parents who use shame as their key weapon in their parenting arsenal. They think they can humiliate or guilt their children into better behavior. Rather than use empathy to build bridges, they use shame on their loved ones and build a wall that isolates their child (as if the child didn't feel alone enough, scared enough, humiliated enough already.)
Shame has no place in parenting. We need to stop holding our children to an impossible standard, and start guiding them to be the best version of themselves. We need to be unafraid to show our own vulnerabilities and say, “Yeah, me too. I struggle.”3 comments on this story
Our children need to know they’re not evil or broken if they mess up. They need to know they’re human. Everyone is tempted. Everyone is fighting a darkness. The goal is not perfection, it’s self-control.
My daughter wanted candy. That’s normal, not shameful. But as a parent, my job was to help her find the confidence to assert control over those desires, little by little, day by day.
Nobody expects our children to be perfect. And thank goodness, I don’t have to be a perfect parent either. Just like us, our children can try again, recommit and do a little better tomorrow without the burden of shame weighing them down, whispering the lie that they’ll never be enough.