SHAME IS USEFUL
We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish as fools.
Martin Luther King, American political activist
The biblical story of Cain and Able illustrates the difficulty of raising an Abel and not a Cain. One popular book preaches that one can have Siblings Without Rivalry. Wishful thinking. I preach that rivalry is part of human nature, even animal nature. Our dog Whisper seeks our attention more ardently when there is competition and competition can be another dog, a baby, or a child or a grown up.
Shame is nature’s gift to keep us from sins that put us outside the circle of human caring. Jerome Kagan, leading expert on how we become who we become, notes that shame develops at the point when a child becomes capable of hurting another child usually a newborn sibling. He sees the purpose of shame as keeping us from doing the unthinkable–the sin of Cain. Not all agree with him. I do. That we are born to feel shame, might make you think we are innately prone to the sin of Cain. Believers in original sin, plow that rut. Also not true for as Kagan notes we are born to feel empathy just as we are born to feel shame. Even newborns cry when another baby in the nursery cries. He also notes that shame and empathy are influenced by life experiences and the behavior of parents.
This is why some theorists think parents create shame. The attachment theorists are the leaders in the faulting parents. These think shame is created by parents, mostly mothers. Mothers who don’t “bond” or “attach” with unconditional love are telling the child s/he is not worthy of love and therefore deeply flawed. Those who teach communication skills are part of this group. Siblings Without Rivalry is a book about communicating so your child will not feel shame. Parents can create shame, that is true; but overstated.
This Animated lecture goes into more detail about the development of empathy. It is about ten minutes long and crammed with information but in useful format.
Shame seeks to keep us from hurting others. Shame is about being flawed as a person and not worthy of being loved. Guilt is a lesser form of shame as it is a response to having done something bad. Guild does not but you outside of the human circle of caring for behavior can be reformed, being flawed cannot.
Some religions have attached shame to a great many things. Thoughts are one example. In Judaism, the talk is about putting fences around unacceptable behaviors., thinking hateful thoughts might be such a fence. The Catholic church and many other Christian religions have gone a step further and made thoughts the equivalent of sinful acts.
Part of becoming emotionally fit is knowing thoughts are not actions, but also thinking before acting so one can act wisely. Something parents have to do for the very young child locked into thinking dolls are real, the people on the movie screen or television set are real. Just as a parent has to keep a magical thinking child jumping off a roof while believing s/he can fly ala Peter Pan or Superman, parents need to make it clear what is good behavior and what is bad.
The young child must be taught that hurting another living being is simply not acceptable except in clear cut cases of self defense. Adult dogs shake a puppy playing too roughly by the scruff of the neck to stop a potential bully from harming others. Human parents need to react just as strongly when a child hurts another being. Not by shaking, but in other ways. Here are my ideas about nurturing your child’s caring ways while keep shame in its place.
- Know what is shameful behavior and be clear when disciplining a child.
- Model caring. Always a major step in teaching a child; the younger the child, the more important.
- Praise caring behavior. When a child does things like pick up and put away toys, or brings you something at your request that is caring behavior; makes your life easier and is kindness in action. Praise and say thank you. The more you can genuinely acknowledge a child’s good behavior, the more that behavior grows.
- Involve your child is some sort of good works or charitable activity.
- Involve your child in a self-defense course, but one that teaches striking another is a last resort, and that self-defense is not the same as violence.
- Discuss media and other messages involving violence.
- Help your child develop a life affirming philosophy that explains why people do bad things–something has gone wrong in their lives. The older your child, the more important to discuss this aspect of life,
- Don’t be afraid to come on strong, not abusively but strong, when a child hurts you, another person, or an animal.
- When you must punish a child, make sure after that he or she knows it is your job to teach right from wrong. Make sure the child knows you have faith in his or her desire to be good.
- If you blow your cool and do something unkind to your child, apologize and make an amends.
A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than yesterday.
Jonathan Swift, English novelist and satirist