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What Parents Need To Know About Shaming Their Kids In Public

flickr / Forrest Bourke

There you are, winding down the cereal aisle when all of a sudden your kid goes rogue and kicks a fellow shopper’s cart. Or gets weird with a box of Apple Jacks. Or purposely dumps out the contents of his sippy cup onto your shoes. It happens. And they need to learn a lesson. So you entertain fellow shoppers by scolding your child right then and there.

But reprimanding your kid in such a public setting may promote feelings of shame in your kid, rather than guilt. A fine distinction, maybe, but a crucial one says June Tangney, a clinical psychologist at George Mason University. Tangney has spent much of her career studying shame in students and adolescents, and what she knows may convince you to leave the rest of the supermarket — or wherever — out of your disciplinary talks.

Shame And Guilt Are Not The Same

Here’s the difference: Shame is an emotion that makes you feel bad about yourself; guilt is an emotion that makes you feel bad about something you did. That difference is huge, says Tangney. “When people feel ashamed of themselves, they blame other people and are less likely to take responsibility for their actions.” Conversely, guilt leads to the notion that, as Tangney puts it, “it’s not who you are it’s what you did that’s a problem.” If your parenting goal is, well, parenting, as opposed to being a schmuck, then a grocery store tribunal is probably a no-go. “Anytime someone’s scolded in public they feel ashamed,” she says.

Seriously. They’re Really Different

Not to put too fine a point on it, but shame, per Tangney, makes a person feel diminished, rendering them less empowered to try to make the situation right. “People tend to withdraw when they feel ashamed,” she says. “They’re not focused on learning the right way to go about something. They’re focused on how to defend themselves.” Guilt, on the other hand, can make a person go to great lengths to change, make amends and do all the things crappy, immature adults don’t do when they screw up.

Exercise Empathy Before You Start Shaming

Shame has a long history in capital punishment. Here’s pretty much all you need to know about it: “Back in the day, criminals could opt to go to jail or get shamed in the pillories. Most of the time people did not choose shame,” Tangney says The reason? Shame is a shitty feeling (just ask Cersei Lannister), one that can breed contempt or lead to scars later in life. Just think about times when you felt shame during childhood, suggests Tangney. “It could be over the smallest thing. But people remember these episodes their whole lives and more often than not it wasn’t a useful experience.” Empathy!

Don’t Make Such A Scene

When you’re in public and the situation needs to be addressed right then and there, what should you do?  Explain to your kid what they did wrong, but don’t make a big stink about it (something you’ve likely said from time-to-time). “Do it in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t make a big scene that brings the eyes of an audience on the child.” For young kids, giving feedback quickly is good, she says. But focus on doing it in a way that’s instructive. “Tell them we don’t do this, why we don’t, and quickly move on.”

Help Your Kid Make Amends

Another way to up the guilt factor (did you ever think this would be a desirable parenting strategy?) is to focus on the problematic behavior or action and craft a reparative plan for you kid to make things better. Who can he or she apologize to? How can they avoid the problem next time? “They are going to fail and transgress,” says Tangney. “Help them come up with a plan to make things right. That is the most moral thing you can do.”

Shaming Could Lead To Repeat Offenders

It might be odd to compare your kids to inmates, but they’re the perfect population to study shame and guilt. That’s why Tangney has done that with an eye toward reducing re-offenders. “We found that inmates who have a propensity toward guilt are less likely to recidivate in the first year post-release,” she says.

Why? Well, people who tend to experience shame become defensive rather than working to improve themselves, she says. “It’s not helpful for getting offenders to move toward a legal path. Clearly, there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with shame even if it can be useful sometimes.” Probably good advice, unless you enjoy receiving collect calls from correctional facilities.