“Say you’re sorry,” we instructed her. She reached out to me and gently stroked my cheek, her gesture of apology for causing pain. “I sorry,” she wailed. We kissed her, forgave her, and moved on with the morning as if it had never happened.
Shame is a very powerful thing. All of us are familiar with it. Those of us who parent recognize its power to direct and teach our children to behave in a fashion more to our liking. I use the phrase “in a fashion more to our liking” because it feels like the most honest description. I was inclined to use the word “appropriately” or “properly” or even just put a period after “behave.” But all of that assumes some kind of morally objective standard which everyone would agree to. And in some cases, that might be true. If you are reading this blog and believe that your child should hit his or her parents with shoes, then by all means, leave a comment below explaining yourself. Not hitting other people is a standard our culture tends to encourage, at least to some degree. But we all have to admit there have been times when we’ve used shame towards our children to encourage some kind of behavior that might not fall into a widely held social standard.
Some examples heard in our house: “Big girls use forks.” “It’s not good to run around bare-bottomed.” “It would be nice if you would go to sleep now.” “You’re too loud.” All of these statements felt true to the speaker but might not have felt true to our little girl. After all, I can imagine some times when it is good to run around bare-assed. There are moments in my life when it doesn’t feel nice to me to go to sleep, and times when I don’t think I can be loud enough. Also, where is it written that big girls use forks? I’m pretty sure that’s not a fact. But all of these statements backed standards of behavior that we want our little girl to follow. And they were phrased in such a way as to imply judgment for not following these standards.
And you know what? It works. As our encounter this morning illustrates, we can make her feel bad for her behavior. She felt bad for hitting and spitting on us. Well, perhaps more accurately, she felt bad that we changed the way we responded to her. She felt our disapproval and responded to that, not to her behavior. Of course, she’s still just a toddler; she has a little ways to go before she can understand the deeper meaning of her actions. So it’s completely developmentally appropriate for her to understand that her actions have consequences, and if she doesn’t like those consequences, she can alter her actions.
But I have to wonder sometimes if shame is the way to go. I’ve spent years in therapy metabolizing my shame. I think you can probably identify how shame gets triggered in your own life. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to tell me about it; that would just provoke it. But all of us carry shame, deep and powerful and potent, and it’s as old as we are and we spend a lot of energy trying to keep it dormant. And when it gets awakened, it’s ugly and toxic.
There’s plenty of material out there describing what exactly shame is. Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, two family therapists who wrote a book called Facing Shame, describe shame as a negative or derogatory feeling about one’s self, as opposed to guilt, which is a negative or derogatory feeling about an action one has committed. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in her examination of shame in Japanese culture, described shame as a violation of a cultural norm and guilt as a violation of a personal value. There seems to be significance in distinguishing shame from guilt. Guilt, it would seem, is somehow less awful. Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist who has specialized in treatment for incest victims, described shame as a state in which the ego self is split and dependent upon the valuation of other people, whereas guilt is an appropriate assessment of one’s actions through a unified ego-self (from a speech collected in this book). Shame, therefore, is far deeper and more destructive.
So, then, guilt is good, I guess. Clearly, there are moments when I want my little girl to feel guilty. Like when she hits me with a shoe. I’m glad she feels guilty about that. Do I want her to feel ashamed? I’m not sure. There are things in this world that I will gladly say it is good to feel guilty over. Violence and hostile aggression, for instance. And I suppose I would want people to feel shame if they discover that they are the sort of person who gladly or easily resort to violence and hostile aggression in order to assert their will over others. But my little Curly Fries is only two years old. She’s still developing an ego self. I worry about making shame an integral part of that self before she’s capable of distinguishing her unified self.
I probably worry too much about this. (It’s part of my shame.) After all, the ego self of a two-year-old is split just by its very nature; I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors to wish that she had a unified ego self before she’s out of diapers. And of course I want her to “behave,” whatever that means. Perhaps most – or maybe all – of our expectations for her behavior are culturally dictated, but at the end of the day that’s really fine. After all, I’m raising her to live in this culture. If we lived in a culture that valued bare-assed hooligans throwing food on the floor and wiping spit in other people’s hair, then we’d be raising her differently.
But it’s important to us that she knows we love her, that the value of who she is as a self is not in question. That’s why we teach her to apologize. I know she doesn’t understand the concept of remorse, at least not in an intelligible conceptualization. But she knows that when her actions upset us, the rupture is never permanent. My hope is that we can teach her appropriate guilt (appropriate to our own values, of which we try to be sufficiently aware and self-critical) that never morphs into self-loathing or worthlessness.
It’s an imperfect process, to be sure. I had great parents and still came out of life with plenty of shame. And you know people who “have no shame”? No one likes being around those people. I guess we all do well to have a little shame. But the key to metabolizing shame is love. So as I wrestle with my own guilt about whether I’m doing right in raising my child, I just keep falling back on my love for her. I just keep hoping that my persistence in loving her, in forgiving her, in holding her in my arms no matter how many times she hits me or spits on me, will help her develop a sense of right action integrated into a unified ego self that believes in the same values of love and kindness. I just wish it were easier sometimes.