Why Shaming Your Kids Isn't Effective Discipline

Find out why shaming kids never works

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You've probably seen countless examples of parents shaming kids online and in public. From dramatically escalating consequences—and dishing the details to anyone who'll listen— to 'calling out' troubling behavior on Facebook and Instagram, publicly shaming kids can seem effective at first. It certainly gets their attention, right? But the problem is that it never works in the long run as a tool for shaping your kids' behavior. In addition, it can have a serious and lingering impact on your parent-child relationship, not to mention their self-esteem. Here's what you need to know about shaming your kids online and in public, including examples of shaming words that single parents, in particular, should avoid.

What Is Shaming?

Wondering exactly what constitutes shaming a child? Here are some examples:

  • Telling embarrassing or revealing stories in an attempt to manipulate the child's attitude or behavior
  • Taking what should be a private conversation about behavior and consequences and making it public by sharing it with friends, family, or the world at large (via social media)
  • Intentionally making a child feel bad about himself or herself, as a person, instead of focusing on the actual behavior you're trying to change

Sadly, these techniques can seem to work in the beginning, but shaming your child will quickly backfire. And while parents have probably used shame since the beginning to time, the reach of social media makes it more dangerous than ever. Not only do you lose considerable relational equity, but shaming kids in public or online also tears down trust and self-esteem. At the same time, it zaps your child's motivation to engage in the very behaviors you're trying to encourage.

Guilt vs. Shame

What's confusing for parents is that thoughts and feelings do influence behavior. For example, if you yelled at your kids and then felt a sense of guilt or regret, those feelings might be enough to make you change your behavior. But there's a difference between guilt and shame.

Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and the author of the New York Times best-selling book "Daring Greatly," shows the difference between guilt and shame:

  • Guilt says "I did a bad thing."
  • Shame says, "I am bad."

No matter what behavioral challenges you're dealing with right now, that's not a message you want to send to your kids.​

Why Shaming Your Kids Doesn't Work

Shaming kids is also dangerous because shame tends to be a feeling that sticks around, and it often lasts longer than you realize or intend. So while it may seem on the surface like parents who shame their kids on social media get results, recognize that this approach to parenting actually damages two things you're working hard to create:

  • Your child's self-esteem 
  • Your long-term relationship

For some, there may also be a connection between the reach of public shaming and its long-term impacts. For example, shaming your child publicly on Facebook, where there's a perception that a very large number of people are seeing it, may be more harmful to your relationship and your child's sense of self than the old-fashioned "You won't believe what he did now!" kind of shaming that used to take place around the dinner table in front of Aunt Sally. 

What If You've Already Publicly Shamed Your Kids?

Let's get real. You might be reading this and thinking, "Oh no! I've already done this." Now's your opportunity to apologize. Your kids need to see that you're human and willing to own your mistakes. So even if you're experiencing a degree of remorse that makes it extremely difficult to initiate that conversation, make it happen.

If you've publicly shamed your child, he or she needs to hear you genuinely apologize and communicate clearly assurance that it won't happen again.

A genuine apology will have a restorative effect on your relationship so that you can begin to leverage your connection as your biggest 'weapon' for influencing your child's behavior—not shaming.

Shaming Words Single Parents Should Avoid

Some single parents may be at greater risk for resorting to shaming their kids because of the tension that often accompanies communicating with your ex. Here's a list of shaming words and phrases you'll want to avoid:

  1. "You're such a bad girl." This accusation doesn't help your child understand what she's done wrong or what she needs to change. And it's definitely not a phrase you want knocking around in her thoughts for years to come!
  2. "You're just like your mother (or father)." This can be every bit as shaming as the "you're a bad girl" example, especially if your child knows you have a lot of animosity and conflict with your ex.
  3. "I don't know why I even bother with you." Imagine what that one feels like for a moment. Most of the time, this one gets used out of sheer frustration. To avoid getting to that point in the first place, be intentional about taking care of yourself and carving out some me​-time when you need it.
  4. "I should ship you off to live with dad (or mom)" This is similar to the phrase above, and it not only conveys exasperation, but it also diminishes your parental authority. You're basically saying that you're out of options. And if you feel that way, stop and take a deep breath. Then surround yourself with your support system and work out your next steps. If your ex is involved, be sure to include him or her in the conversation, too, especially if you believe your child's behaviors may be putting him at risk.
  5. "I'm so tired of dealing with you." Stop this sentence at "I'm so tired." Period. And then take a break and get some rest. A fresh perspective will help you address any problems you're experiencing with your child without destroying his self-esteem or your relationship.

How to Influence Your Kids' Behavior Without Shaming

The very best tool you have at your disposal for influencing your kids' behavior is your relationship. Ideally, you want to create a bond that reinforces your kids' positive sense of who they are, while also giving them room to learn from their mistakes. So when your kids choose to disobey you, have a conversation about their choices and what they can do differently next time. Here are some examples of positive words and phrases you can use:

  • "I'd like you to tell me what happened." Take a few minutes to hear your child out before you respond.
  • "What did that feel like for you?" Help your child identify the feelings associated with the events that took place. These may include anger, fear, loneliness, surprise, and others.
  • "What could you have done differently?" This is a big one! Ideally, you want your child to name for himself or herself the alternatives that might have been more effective. At this moment, it's important for you to affirm ideas that could have been effective. The idea is to empower your child with strategies for 'next time' rather than shaming your child not choosing those options the first time around.
  • "What will you do next time?" Solidify the strength of your child's words by helping him or her name a top strategy.
  • "How can I help?" This one is often left out, but it's so powerful! Even if there's nothing practical you can do, it will help your child to hear you make a genuine offer to help.
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