Think hard before shaming children

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

As a parent, it’s easy to slip into shaming your child. It can happen so easily, as you blurt out what you are thinking:

“Do you really want to go out looking like that?”
“You let your teammates down during that game.”
“Why can’t you get good grades like your sister?”
“Why do you hang out at home all the time instead of going out like other kids?”
“Why are you crying? It’s not that bad.”

As we blurt out such things, we usually don’t think of them as shaming. We think of them as something that might help our child recognize a problem — and perhaps motivate them to change. We think of them as constructive criticism.

The line between criticism and shaming

The problem is that there is a fine line between criticism and shaming — and shaming is a bad idea. Here’s why:

  • Sometimes children truly cannot change what is being shamed. Not everyone is a star student or athlete, we all make mistakes despite our best efforts, and some children are more sensitive or introverted than others, for example. We also can’t always change how we look, which is why fat-shaming is a terrible idea.
  • Sometimes what is being shamed is part of a child’s identity. Clothing choices are a good example, especially for teens. So is how and with whom a child chooses to spend their time.
  • Shaming may make children feel like they cannot change. Rather than motivating them, it may make them feel like they aren’t capable. And as a corollary and consequence…
  • Shaming may make children feel bad about themselves. When the people you love the most, and whose opinion matters most, say bad things about you, it can be more than hurtful — it can affect your self-esteem in ways that can become ingrained and permanent.

How to put a stop to shaming

To prevent shaming, we need to stop and think before we speak. There are two things you should always ask yourself if you are about to criticize your child:

  • Is this something they can change?
  • Is it important that they change it?

Be really honest with yourself about the answers, especially to the second question. If the answer to either one is no, then it’s not something to criticize, end of story. Don’t take the risk of shaming or hurting your relationship with your child — and don’t waste your time or energy.

If the answer to both is yes, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a good place and time to say anything?
  • Do they want to change this behavior?

Criticizing a child in public may be important, especially if they have been rude or hurtful to someone, or done something that could be unsafe. But outside of those circumstances, public criticism is shaming. It also may not be a great idea to criticize when a child is already upset, or when they are in a situation where they need to keep their composure or not be distracted; that’s less about shaming and more about being kind and effective.

If a child really doesn’t want to change a behavior, then you are going to have to think of a different way of managing it than just pointing it out. Which leads to the last and most important question:

  • Is there a better way of changing this behavior?

The answer to that is most likely going to be yes.

We do best as parents when we take the time to understand why our children do what they do — and find collaborative, supportive ways to help them make safe, kind, and healthy choices. As parents, our words have power; as much as we can, we need to use that power for good.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Comments:

  1. VitaliZEN Health

    Thank you for this. This is very hard to do once you get used to scolding your children instead of thinking different ideas to make the situation better, because it is very easy for us to react first than to think first before we say anything. In order to do this we should observe first our behavior and practice to calm down and relax in any given situation. Try meditation for once in a while it will help you to self realize and access your own decisions in life and hopefully change the bad habits that we used to do.

  2. Pm

    This would be a great topic to address for parents of adult “children” as well who may benefit from guidance during significant life events, unhealthy diet choices, career challenges, and many more.

Commenting has been closed for this post.