Stories of kids I tell here are often anonymous – children and parents or teachers I observe in my day-to-day life. Sometimes they are about friends and family members (with their permission).
This story is about me as a child, and about my mom, without her worldly permission, which is no longer possible.
As was common back then, in my 1950s-60s childhood, shame was a parenting tool Mom used regularly. You know about and have felt Shame, right? It’s a “painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” It’s the “I’m Wrong” and the “I’m Worthless” feeling. Its synonyms include mortification and embarrassment. A dear friend of mine with a background in drug and alcohol rehab identifies it is an acronym: S.H.A.M.E., for Should Have Already Mastered Everything.
As much as I loved my mother by the end of her life, I must own the reality that, when we were young, shame was one of a small set of her go-to discipline techniques. I don’t negatively judge her for it anymore, as she was doing the best she could with the tools she had. Like most parents, Mom was replicating the parenting of her own early childhood, unconscious of that source of her learning, and unaware of the negative long-term impacts on her children. Her parents shamed her, so she shamed us.
Whenever I didn’t do something, or did it badly, her response to tell me I was wrong was some version of, “Why did/didn’t you . . . ? or “You should/shouldn’t have . . . .” Often, the concluding words of either the question or the statement identified a “something” that was news to me! One classic:
Mom:“You should have laid out your school clothes for today last night, so you’d have found this rip then.”
Me: (in tiny, meek voice) ". . . okay . . . i’m sorry. . . ." ???????=look of deer in headlights or utter confusion
Me, today: “And I would have known to do that, at age nine, how, exactlly???” (No, she never demonstrated that or otherwise taught me to do it)
By the time I was 10, mortification was the best word to express my level of shame. When caught out as “wrong” or, even, uninformed, I felt as if my life was not worth living. I should die for being so foolish, so stupid. I used to hear the echo of Mom’s frequent statement, “Your awfully dumb sometimes, for a smart girl.”
Feeling wrong can still be followed by a flood of red-hot shame. Still, after all these decades, feeling “stupid” can be a trigger, sometimes. When that trigger is pulled, I leave behind my best self, lose my consciousness of my higher self. In the past, to avoid shame or get its jack-booted foot off my neck, I have lied to others and myself, or at least have laid on some pretty thick BS. I have likely hurt someone else at some point, maybe more than once. I would have been blind to my impact, focused desperately on leaping from the burning river of shame-lava within.
Mom’s invocation of shame, as a parenting technique, played a significant role in keeping me from mining my Childhood Treasures, especially Trust, Independence, and Vision. If you’d like to avoid that experience for the children you parent or teach, here are a half-dozen of my suggestions for alternatives to shame as a parenting tool:
No shame in that!
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