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Kids Could Stand to Feel a Little Shame

No parent likes to see their child in pain, and most of us strive to avoid shaming our children for understandable mistakes. But it turns out a little dose of “healthy” shame goes a long way toward building a responsible child with strong self-esteem.

Psychologist John Bradshaw defines healthy shame as “the emotion that lets us know we are finite,” in his book “Healing the Shame That Binds You.” A healthy dose is the “psychological foundation of humility” and the natural consequence of doing something we know is not appropriate to a time or place. It’s what separates regular healthy people from sociopaths.

Still, as a mother, when my 6-year-old son, Ben, was on the receiving end of shame one day in his weekly taekwondo class, I struggled not to take away his feelings. On the day of the incident, we’d had our first week of rain in drought stricken California, creating days of forced inside play. I hoped class would shake off his buzzing, stir-crazy energy that evening.

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His teacher, Johnny, a 20-something black belt, reinforces the importance of respect and discipline, which is why I chose martial arts for my imaginative, independent boy. Though generally well-behaved, Ben has received some mild chastising for chatting to his buddy or failing to shout “Sir” after each command, with little drama.

It’s only when children internalize shame without loving guidance to help them know the difference, unable to separate their actions from their self-worth, that shame becomes toxic.

This day, however, all the kids were wilder than usual, their round house kicks harder, their “kiahs” a little louder, coupled with lots of shouting and jumping. Typically mild-mannered Johnny shouted on more than a few occasions: “Keep your eyes on me and your mouths closed.”

When another boy was continually chastised for talking, I felt a secret relief that my son wasn’t the one being called out.

But when class was over, and the children lined up to get their ticket for a class well done, Johnny kept my son and the two other senior belts aside. I could tell by the somber downturn of Ben’s mouth that the discussion was serious. Meanwhile the rest of the children received their tickets and a piece of candy.

No matter how badly the mama bear in me wanted to take away my child’s suffering, I had to let him feel the sting of healthy shame.

When dismissed, my son made his familiar shuffling walk of shame toward me. When I prodded why, he burst into tears, crying hard into my neck.

“Johnny got mad at us for ‘goofing off’ ‘cuz we’re senior belts. He said we don’t get a ticket or a candy cane.” These coveted yellow tickets, when added up to eight, allow the “purchase” of a goody from a wall of prizes that include plastic nunchucks and ninja figurines.

As my 40-pound child cried in my arms, I wanted to rail at his instructor for singling him out when so many other children in the class had behaved worse. But I suddenly recalled an incident of my own from sixth-grade French. I’d responded to the overtures of a boy who lived to annoy me with lewd taunts by firing a rubber band squarely in his eye.

“Tais-toi!” She shouted. “You will stay after class.”

“But I never do anything wrong,” I remember crying. “I’m a good student.”

“Precisement.” She glared down her sharp nose at me. “That is why I am so disappointed. I hold you to a higher standard than the rest.”

As I reflected on my own memory, I realized what Johnny had done for my son. No matter how badly the mama bear in me wanted to take away my child’s suffering, I had to let him feel the sting of healthy shame so he can learn proper boundaries and humility.

“Johnny respects you,” I said, “and he needs you to demonstrate a level of responsibility to the students below your belt. If you get away with goofing off, then imagine how much harder it is to keep them in line. Does that make sense?”

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My son’s eyes still watered, but once he realized he wasn’t merely “bad” as he often fears, he grew thoughtful and nodded. It’s only when children internalize shame without loving guidance to help them know the difference, unable to separate their actions from their self worth, that shame becomes toxic.

I bit my lip the whole way to the car, watching my son’s usually proud face stuck on a frown. By the time we got home, he was laughing at the antics of our cat. I was the one who carried the weight of watching my child learn a hard lesson into the evening. I tempered it with the hope that one day my son will use this event, and others like it, to instruct his own or another child in an act of humility, of holding one’s spine erect and learning to set an example.

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