Raising Moral Kids Pt. 3

Let’s say that you take your young child to a friend’s house and while she is there, she breaks a toy. Would you prefer that she:

A. Bring you the toy, ask for help fixing it and apologize for breaking the toy.

Or

B. Hide the toy so no one will know that she broke it?

Let me give you a minute to think about this one . . . . OK, I’m psychic so I already know that your answer is A. You’d rather have a kid who admits her error, apologizes, tries to correct her error and will ask for help to do so. You’d also rather have a kid who didn’t lie to you, didn’t hide from you and was able to admit when she is wrong. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

It just so happens that we know what the difference is between a kid who hides a toy they broke and one who takes responsibility for it:

Parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders. ~ Raising a Moral Child, NYT

The difference between a kid who admits error and a kid who avoids it is the difference between guilt and shame. While sometimes you will hear people talking about healthy shame, the truth is that shame is often really toxic. We will do just about anything to avoid it. Including hiding our errors, lying, engaging in destructive self-soothing behaviors, mistreating others and ourselves. People will go to their graves never knowing a moment of real peace or love rather than facing their shame.

Clearly shame is part of the normal repertoire of human emotions, but way more often than not, we experience it in really unhealthy ways. Too many parents encourage shame in their kids as a way to control them. Even parents who know better will unknowingly create shame in their children. According to current thinking, based on pretty much every human’s experience, shame is what you get when a caregiver uses anger, fear, ridicule or contempt in an attempt to control their child’s behavior.

Your kids are going to make mistakes. How you respond to their mistakes, and how you teach them to respond to their mistakes can help them learn to have appropriate guilt which motivates them to correct their errors. Or it can teach them that they are fundamentally broken and unlovable. So, no pressure or anything. 

As I said, some kids seem to be more temperamentally prone to experiencing shame when they think they have made a mistake or caused you to disapprove of them. Sharp words in a moment of frustration can lead some kids to withdraw into shame. If you have a kid like that, you need to be sensitive to it, yes. But you also need to help your child learn healthier ways to deal with life than spiraling into shame. Instead of getting angry, make light of his and your own mistakes; very little we do is actually that serious. Occasionally a kid like this benefits a lot from seeing you deliberately do something dumb. If you can get them to join in, it does help them learn that you can make mistakes without having to feel ashamed.

However, far more common, I think is the child whose parents react to his or her mistakes in such a way as to create shame. Often, we are so caught up in the moment when dealing with an unreasonable or difficult child, that we forget to leave room for them to be wrong. We tend to come down on the like a ton of bricks, leaving them to chose between stubborn defiance and grovelling admission of guilt. We demand that they admit their error, ask forgiveness and promise to change when presented with evidence of their error. But as all of us know, being forced into a corner when we are wrong is a terrible experience which tends not to bring out the best in even a mature adult.

The thing we forget is that when a child refuses to go along with his or her parent, they generally aren’t doing so in order to challenge you. Usually they are doing so because they really think they are right and you are wrong. At some point, it will often dawn on them that they are being ridiculous. Often this realization occurs right in the middle of an uncontrollable emotional breakdown. If you are using fear, anger, ridicule or contempt to try and change your child’s behavior when it occurs to the child that they may be wrong, they will believe that your mistreatment of them is due to this fundamental flaw in themselves which they too have just discovered. Thus, your child will grow up thinking that there is something fundamentally flawed and unlovable about them just because they really, really wanted to wear their right boot on their left foot.

So, we’re all human and we only have so much patience. Inevitably we’re going to lose it at some point. And your kid will be in therapy complaining about how they’ve never been able to enjoy true intimacy because of that one time you began sobbing hysterically about your wasted life when she spilled her apple juice. For the fourth time in as many minutes. It happens. But what you don’t want is your child in therapy having to be convinced by a trained professional that the way you treated them was wrong and not their fault.

It can be really hard, but when ever possible, let your kid figure out for himself that he’s wrong. Eventually, wearing shoes on the wrong feet doesn’t feel so great. Getting in trouble at school for not completing homework gets old. Refusing to share with your sister means she won’t play with you. Life has all sorts of ways of telling us we’re wrong beyond having someone more powerful than you get in your face, confront you with the evidence and demand you admit what a screw up you are.

When you lose it on occasion, apologize to your kid. Don’t blame them for your own poor behavior. Don’t pressure them into forgiveness. Just promise to do better going forward and ask if they will do the same. This is what guilty people do. This is what we want our kids to do. (Hey – remember that thing about how what we do carries more weight than what we say?)

When your kid messes up, instead of freaking out, treat it like an unfortunate event that you’re sure she is none too pleased with either. I find that using my super-amazing-super-simple discipline trick to defuse the situation before addressing the mistake helps me avoid giving in to my desire to be mean and nasty to a kid who’s giving me trouble. I’d rather not even to give myself the chance.

I’ll be honest; parenting this way is not easy. It requires me to have way more self-control, humility and patience than I want to have. But I do it because I have seen all my life the consequences of people who are prisoners of their shame. In fact, I think that the world around us makes more sense when you realize that it’s filled with shame filled people who never had a chance to learn how to be wrong in a healthy way. It’s why we’re so bad at admitting when we are wrong. Or recognizing when the world is communicating to us that we’re screwing up. Why so many people let their demons drive them to destroy themselves or others. More often than not, how people were parented through their mistakes is right at the root of so much of what is wrong with humanity.

So don’t raise people like that. Give your kids room to be wrong. Get yourself therapy if you can’t handle their mistakes and challenging behavior without resorting to anger and shame. Your kids – and humanity as a whole, really – cannot afford for you to pass your shame down to them.

Now if you’ll excuse my, I have a 9 year old daughter who is in need of some assistance in learning to be wrong . . . .

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One thought on “Raising Moral Kids Pt. 3

  1. Another observation from Gabor Mate’s writings: If a child grows up stressed by his mother’s absence or her emotional distraction during a crucial period in infancy — [And the current economic/social/political pressures on poor mothers these days make that likely to happen all too commonly] — Shame, when it’s triggered, is going to be a particularly intense feeling for any such kid. Yes, he/she can develop the emotional resilience to cope with it — eventually.

    But that is something to watch for, not something to blame the child nor the parents for — and definitely not something to be ashamed of… which as you say, isn’t an attitude that typically helps much. [Maybe if Bill Clinton, GW Bush, Obama felt due shame for sacrificing so many children to a dysfunctional economic system? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate?]

    [Would you rather have a mother who…. ]

    Like

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