Avoiding Shame

Avoiding Shame

    As humans, we all need to learn how to live in social communities and we need to feel badly when we do things that are wrong and hurt others. However, there is a big difference between feeling guilty and feeling shame.
     Guilt tells us that our actions were inappropriate. And we can usually feel better by making amends (see my post about apology-in-action). Shame, however, tells us that we are unworthy, no good, worthless – a terrible person. And the problem is that there is no way to make amends for being worthless. This feeling just sits inside us, like a toxin, and if we pile enough shame on children, psychological problems can result. So basically, feeling guilty can help us realign our actions to be more in line with social norms. Shame however, is never helpful, and should be avoided at all costs.
     One way to do this is to make sure that when you are giving feedback to children about inappropriate actions, focus on the behavior, not the child herself. Here are some examples:

Teacher talk that shames children
Teacher talk that helps children see the effect of their actions:
“What’s wrong with you?”
When you swing your arms like that, you could hurt someone.
“You should be ashamed of yourself”
If you want a turn with that truck, you need to use your words to ask, not hitting.
“Why don’t you listen? How many times do I have to tell you this?”
It looks like you’ve forgotten how to line up, let’s practice it now.
“I don’t know what to do with you”
When you come to reading group, you need to have your book. You can quietly get it now.
“You drive me crazy”
Ring bell to signal lowering your voices. “Remember to use your whisper voice now.”
“How could you do that?”
When you took Ariel’s snack, she got very upset. Look, she is crying. What can you do to make her feel better? How can you fix this problem?
“I’ll have to tell your mother you were bad today”
You had some problems remembering our rules today. Let’s go over them again and I bet tomorrow you will remember them better.
“You’ll never make it to 2nd grade”
“What are you having trouble with? Are there parts of this lesson you don’t understand?”
“Why aren’t you more like your brother?”
“You are a very funny person. That helps our whole classroom have fun and to laugh. Let’s go over what you need to do during center time, though, so you can remember what you need to be working on.”
“What I am supposed to do with you?
“It seems like you are angry today. Would you like to talk about it?

Of course, this is hard to do when we are so angry at the child that we say whatever comes up for us. And if we had parents (or teachers) who shamed us a lot, guess what is likely to come up? Those same shaming phrases from our youth. So the next time a child starts to push your buttons, take a breath, and give yourself a quick time out to calm your thoughts!