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Are you unintentionally shaming your children?

Posted November 2

Erin Stewart writes that yelling at children and other parenting methods can shame children. (Deseret Photo)

I have never thought of myself as a parent who shames her children. I don’t yell or call them names or dole out arbitrary punishments.

In fact, I admit I often have a moment of holier-than-thou parenting when I am with a friend of mine who does yell at her kids. I cringe when she says things like, “What is wrong with you?” or “You are driving me nuts!”

But me? I’d never shame my child — at least that’s what I thought until I watched a video as part of the Huffington Post article titled "Could you be shaming your child without meaning to?" It discusses how parents unintentionally shame their children, which essentially means we convey the message to our little ones that they are somehow not enough just the way they are.

That message doesn’t have to come in nasty, demeaning words. It can often come in subtle ways and common phrases such as, "You're too old to act like that" or "You should know better." As we try to fix our children’s behaviors, we inadvertently attack their sense of self.

So, I took a look at my own interactions with my two daughters and searched for any evidence of such unintentional shaming. Here’s what I found:

The family joke: My oldest daughter is chronically late because she is forgetful. Most mornings, we sit in the car and wait for her to gather up her backpack, shoes, homework and lunch. This has become a running joke in our family. We all laugh about it — including my daughter — so I never thought it was harmful. But now I see this is a very subtle way of shaming my daughter in the hopes she will change her behavior. The painful message is this: You are worthy of mockery because of who you are.

Yikes. That is never a message I want to send my amazing young daughter.

The fix: Rather than poke fun at her struggle, I am trying to help her address the behaviors that are making her late. So far, we have a whiteboard where she can write lists for herself to remember what she needs to accomplish every night and every morning, and I am giving her time increment reminders so she doesn’t have to feel rushed in the last few minutes. Most importantly, I am talking about her behaviors only, not who she is as a person.

That’s enough!: Then, I looked at my relationship with my younger daughter, who struggles with delayed gratification. This often manifests itself by her asking for more things — more dessert, more toys in the check-out line, more screen time, etc. And often, my answer is something along the lines of, “No. You’ve had enough!” or “You’ve watched way too much TV already.” The subtle message here is, “You shouldn’t want more, and your desires are wrong.” But any normal child would definitely want more dessert or more toys or more TV.

The fix: Once again, I need to make sure I am addressing only the behaviors and not the desires/self-image of my child. I can say things like “Wasn’t that cake delicious? I could eat the whole thing! But I won’t because that wouldn’t be healthy. So I guess we’ll both have to wait until tomorrow.”

I never want my children to feel ashamed of who they are. They are wonderful and beautiful and imperfect just like me. And as their mother, I want nothing more than to guide and teach them, but also to reassure them that who they are is more than enough.

If you think you might have even a twinge of shame in your parenting arsenal, here are some tips from AhaParenting.com on how to change your words to build up your children rather than tear them down:

Avoid phrases that judge:

  • Who the child is: "You'd lose your head if it wasn't glued on!"
  • What the child wants: "You just want more, more, more! You have a whole room full of toys, isn't that enough for you?"
  • What the child feels: "You do not hate your brother; don't say such terrible things!"
  • What the child needs: "What? Are you a baby?! Don't you see I have enough to do taking care of your brother?"
The website suggests that parents replace these judgmental phrases with empathy and guidance such as:

  • "You lost your jacket? Oh no! Let's think about where you could have left it. And let's figure out a way for you to check whether you have everything before you leave someplace."
  • "That toy looks pretty cool. You really wish you could have it. Sweetie, we're not buying toys today. We can write it on your birthday list and maybe you can have it then, if it's still what you want most."
  • "I hear how furious you are at your brother. Tell me what happened, Honey."
  • "Everybody wants to be babied sometimes. You will always be my baby, no matter how big you get. I can't carry you right now, but come here and let me give you a big cuddle."

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her and her newborn son wins hearts with his dimples.

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