home schooling paths
  E-journal April 25, 2012

The Shame Incident at Costco

by Ellyn Davis

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I'm continually amazed at how oblivious parents can be to the messages they are sending their children. I wrote several years ago about a "shaming" incident I witnessed in Red Lobster between a father and his 6 year old daughter that made me want to punch the father out. This past week I witnessed a similar incident, this time in Costco between a mother and her 4-ish year old son. The incident inspired me to do a recap of my previous "shame" message.

Sometimes I just want to create a flier with a big red circle with a slash through it with the word "shame" in the middle of the circle. Inside the flier would be information about what shame is and how it can warp a child's identity and a link to articles or a book with information about proper parenting. I'd print up a few hundred of these fliers and hand them out to parents every time I saw a shaming incident in progress, which is way too often for my taste. These may all be good, well-meaning parents, but they have absolutely no clue that their words can shape their children's self-perception for the rest of their lives.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking...."Ellyn's got an ax to grind" or "She's reacting to emotional trauma from her childhood," or "She's still dealing with a shaming incident in her own past," etc. Maybe. Maybe not. But does any of that even matter? I'll share the incidences and the recent research on the effects of shame and let you decide for yourself.

Shaming Incidents

Here are just 3 memorable shaming incidents I've been privy to:

Incident #1: I was sitting in a booth at Red Lobster in Dothan, Alabama. It was my mother’s 87th birthday and my two sisters and I had driven from our homes in Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee to spend the day with her and take her out to dinner. (My mother didn’t ask for much. Red Lobster was her idea of a gourmet meal.)

We were all sharing family memories and having a wonderful time together when from the booth behind us a man began speaking so loudly that I could tell he wanted everyone within a 20 foot radius of his table to hear him. He boomed out, “Mama, I think we’ve got ourselves a selfish little girl here.”

His comments were addressed towards a little girl who had her back to us and looked like she was maybe 6 years old. I don’t know what the little girl did to deserve that assessment of herself, but for the next five minutes the father proceeded to tell her how selfish she was, and he said it loud enough for everyone in our corner of the restaurant to catch every word. He covered everything he could think of to prove how selfish she was…she didn’t want to share her toys, she liked the biggest piece of pie, and on and on.

He finished his tirade by telling her that no one would ever like her and she would never have any friends and bad things would happen to her because she was such a selfish person. And to punctuate every accusation, he would enlist agreement from the girls’ mother by saying something like, “Mama, our selfish little girl isn’t going to have any friends, is she?” I couldn't see the mother's face and never heard her reply so she must have just been giving silent assent to her bullying husband's statements.

At that point, I stood up and walked by their booth. Not only did I have to go to the restroom, but I wanted to get a look at the “selfish” girl. (I also wanted to punch the father out.) There she was, with a look of shame and embarrassment on her face that I have seldom seen in a child. She was hunched over in her seat with her head down and her eyes on her plate. She was very pretty, with long brown hair.

Incident #2: Setting: the hallway of a church (not my church). Participants: a pastor's wife and her 5 or 6 year old son. Incident: I'm not sure what the boy did to deserve it, but the mother pulled his pants down and spanked his bare bottom with her hand in front of the 30 or 40 people, including children, standing around chatting in the hall, all the time telling him what a bad boy he was.

Incident #3: I was sitting in the food court in Costco in Redding, CA having pizza with my son Seth. We do what we call "Costco Monday" because you can get two slices of pizza and a soft drink for less than $4.00, visit awhile, and then do your shopping for the week, all in the same place. At the table to my right there was a mother, a shopping cart containing an infant in a car seat, and a little boy who looked like he was around 3 or 4 years old. The mother and little boy were sitting across from each other eating pizza when the boy knocked his drink over.

The mother immediately went into a 5 minute tirade about how "not nice" the little boy was, how clumsy he was, how often he tended to knock over his drinks, etc. He hung his head for just a few seconds, then seemed to look around for a way to change the subject. "Look, Mama. That lady's got on a funny hat." he lisped. He was obviously used to the tirades and had already, at his young age, developed strategies to distract his mother from them. But she didn't miss a beat. She went on to reiterate how "not nice" he was and that, because he'd spilled his drink, he needed to be punished so she wasn't going to take him for ice cream afterwards like she'd promised. Everything she said was spoken loudly enough for all of the tables around her to hear.

I wanted to say to her, "For crying out loud, lady. The kid is only 4 years old! Spilling a drink is part of the job description of a 4 year old. If he has a problem keeping Costco's flimsy cups steady, bring along a weighted cup for him. And besides, knocking over a drink hardly means he's not a nice person." But I didn't. Immediately after this incident, a 50-something year old man a few tables over knocked over his drink and nobody told him he was naughty or that he couldn't have ice cream. His wife just laughed and got a few napkins to help him blot it up.

What the parents were doing wouldn't legally be considered "abusive," but, because of my work with foster children and my training in psychology, I knew it really was. Probably one day I'll get caught on one of those "What Would YOU Do?" episodes and be criticized for not speaking up, but I've been told that often the child fares worse later if a stranger tries to intervene.

So, where am I going with all this?

I want to address the tendency to use shame as a tool for correcting children. And we Christian home-schoolers can shame our children without even knowing it under the guise of "character building."  I know this for a fact because I've inadvertently done it myself.

Why? Because we get so focused on developing Christian character in our children that we sometimes forget the message our focus may be sending to them—the message that they are somehow unlovable or "bad" unless they “shape up” and develop all the character traits we are trying to instill in them.

Here’s an explanation of shame-based discipline I took from an internet article:

“Shame is designed to cause children to curtail behavior through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. It involves a comment - direct or indirect - about what the child is. Shaming operates by giving children a negative image about their selves - rather than about the impact of their behavior. Shaming makes the child wrong for feeling, wanting or needing something. Shame is the feeling of being unworthy, inadequate, or defective, expressed in the belief that: ‘There's something wrong with me.’"

This was brought home to me one day when I was cleaning all the accumulated pictures and quotes off the front of the refrigerator. (You know what I mean. Home schooling families tend to use their refrigerators as bulletin boards and art galleries.)

I had taken everything off the refrigerator and was ready to put some of the things back up. When I reached for “21 Rules of Our Household,” Blake stopped me and said, “Mama, please don’t put that back up there.” Blake was about 11 or 12 at the time and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like the list of rules we had always posted on the refrigerator.

He said, “Just looking at those rules every day makes me feel like I’m no good.”

That’s when I knew that our discipline had communicated something unintended—a perception that he was basically a no-good loser. And having to look at those rules every day that he knew he didn’t follow perfectly just reinforced the belief in his mind and heart that it wasn’t OK to be who he was.

The rules wound up in the trash can and I paid special attention from then on to any shaming messages I might inadvertently be sending.

Next issue...more about shame—what it looks like and what it does to a child.

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