Why Teaching Children Shame Can Help Them Learn and Grow

Shame has the power to put kids on the path to self-discovery

mother scolding son
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Teaching children to feel shame after they misbehave may not always be a bad thing. Children aren't necessarily traumatized when parents or caregivers exclaim, "Shame On You!" when they've acted in a way that warrants such criticism. 

Some forms of shame can be good, according to popular psychologists such as the late Dr. Joyce Brothers. Brothers described in Parade magazine how shame can serve as a useful tool in certain instances.

She even went as far as to say that by trying to increase self-esteem, society may have swung too far away from using shame when situations call for it.

When Is Shame a Positive? 

Some forms of shame can be constructive. Examples of constructive shame include calling someone to task for inappropriate behavior or for not standing up for one's rights or principles. Caring people can apply shame to coax others into doing what's right. When people are "shamed into doing the right thing," it often yields a positive result. 

Dr. Brothers wrote that "good" shame can lead to self-discovery and growth by providing new insight, encouraging improvements or expanding one's value system. Good shame makes people more sensitive to others and inspires them to want to elevate the culture around them.

Identifying Bad Shame

Bad shame humiliates people and makes them feel bad about how they look or feel. Dr. Brothers wrote that "shame became an accepted way of making kids conform to society's standards while ignoring the bad feelings it could inflict."

A parent of a 3 year old and an 8 year old says she has been trying to break the cycle of shame in her family. She doesn't want her children to be ashamed of not doing well in school nor does she want to feel inferior when she helps her children with their schoolwork since she grew up feeling ashamed of her weaknesses in math and science.

As a result, she has encouraged her children to learn to love these two subject areas and has encouraged her oldest child to participate in the science fair to overcome her fear of the topic.

When Is Shame a Problem?

Shame is counterproductive when it attacks a child or adult as a person. It's also problematic when it damages one's self-esteem or evokes an emotional or angry response. When feelings of shame are passed on to children, they might hold onto a negative perception or stigma about themselves. Shame is also questionable when it leaves one feeling helpless or inadequate. Constructive shame should effect change and inspire an individual to improve in the future. 

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