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Public Punishment Hurts Kids

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Recently, an 11-year-old boy in California was punished for "not respecting authority" by being forced to stand at a busy street corner for three hours holding up a sign of apology. His parents thought this painful injection of shame would somehow make him a better person. My opinion is that they were dead wrong.

Shame. It's one of those uncomfortable emotions that parents sometimes use to instill a sense of guilt -- as a behavioral shaping technique. A little shame can sometimes do that, create guilt. And a little guilt isn't a bad thing to carry inside us. It stays with us and functions as part of our internal boundary system. When joined with another valuable emotion, empathy, it can stop us from hurting others or acting out selfish behaviors that deny the needs of others.

The problem is that too much shame can do the opposite. And no one knows how much is too much for each individual child. In the short term, studies show that shame doesn't work. Shame-based parenting usually results in increased negative behaviors. And in the long-term, it can be linked to major personality disorders. Shame is such a terrible emotion to experience that it often gets buried underground and bubbles up disguised as narcissism. Shame is the underside of a narcissistic personality disorder -- you know, the people who can't even imagine that anyone else has a need or a feeling. People who appear to be "in love" with themselves and demand a lot of attention. In actuality, their behavior is a defense for deep feelings of shame and self-loathing.

So, is it ever safe to use shame as a parenting technique? My advice is no. Kids are shamed enough. Every parent unknowingly instills plenty of shame just by shooting a condemning glance or a critical word in the direction of a child. Peers instill lots of shame. Teachers with their public behavior charts instill shame. Punishment that involves additional public shame on top of private family shame can be dangerous, damaging, and have lifelong effects. My advice is always: Water what you want to grow. Do not water weeds. Praise good behavior. Give little attention to bad behavior, and your child's internal garden of emotions will flourish in a healthy way.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr


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