Thanks to Brene Brown, conversations about shame and guilt are being had. She makes two important points in her book, Daring Greatly[1]Brown, Brene Ph. D. (2012). Daring Greatly. Avery of Penguin Random House. The first is defining guilt as “I did something bad” and defining shame as “I am bad.” The second is how guilt is a powerful influencer to help us change and do better. Guilt is connected to our behaviors, and behavior is changeable. Shame, on the other hand, will corrode one’s ability to believe they can change and do better. Shame is connected to our identity, and that is not changeable. When I learned this, I was hit with the weight of responsibility we have in shaping a child’s beliefs about themselves.

Changing our parenting style to not include shaming is a challenging task because what it looks like can be difficult to notice. In the heat of the moment, shame is often disguised as “holding our child accountable for their actions” with comments like, “I hope you understand what you did!” or “You were careless, and someone got hurt!”. In my opinion, one of the worst ways to shame our kids is with comparison comments such as, “You need to be more responsible like your brother.” I groan internally at how easily we can miss-step in this area of our parenting. Usually, when we have conversations about undesirable behaviors, our statements contain the word Y-O-U. Typically, those conversations are filled with shame. Our words point to the child’s identity and not the behavior. Since that is the case, the solution is easy: don’t use the word YOU!

However, to be honest, the solution is easier said than done. It took intentional practice for me to drop the word YOU from my statements addressing undesirable behavior. Initially, I would say, “That behavior is unkind or unhelpful.” Using the words “that behavior” is better than the word YOU, but I wasn’t being clear enough. Eventually, I trained myself to state the specific behavior and state whether it was unkind, unhelpful, or unsafe.

For example, if you’re addressing hitting with your child, you could say, “Hitting is unkind; take a break in your room.” This statement can grow more complex as your child matures. A situation with a teen not informing you that they would be late could be addressed with, “Not calling me was unkind. I worried because I care about you.” These types of statements produce better results than, “Stop that! You’re being mean.” Or “You need to be responsible and call me!”

As you practice using this phrasing, something unexpected will happen: you will receive unsolicited apologies. When a behavior is pointed out, and the hurt it caused is explained, as humans, we are wired toward wanting to make things better to restore relationships. Learning that behavior (I did’s) does not define who we are (I am’s) allows for a growth mindset. Once your child knows better, they can do better. As they mature, they will learn that some situations may not be fixable. Yet, they can do their best to make the situation better. As parents, accepting apologies and guiding them to figure out how to make situations better will help build strong character. When we choose not to shame our children, we protect their ability to change and the health of their identity.

In the area of shaping healthy identities in your child, you’re about to start winning!

1 Brown, Brene Ph. D. (2012). Daring Greatly. Avery of Penguin Random House

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