Does shame-based parenting actually work?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

A video of a young girl went viral recently because of a pretty visible disciplinary choice a mother made when she apparently caught her daughter lying.

The girl had been made to stand on a busy street corner in Cape Coral, Florida holding a sign that read, "I lied. I humiliated my mother and myself."

One passer-by was concerned enough to call the police, who said they had addressed the situation and the child was safe. They added the girl had water nearby and nobody was (physically) hurt.

This kind of parenting choice is a lightning rod for fiery online debate, of course, and it has sparked debates all over, with some applauding the mother's hard-line approach, while others criticised her for being "narcissistic" and "cruel".

Is there a hidden cost in this brand of discipline? Does making children experience shame actually improve their behaviour and, if it does, what are the longer term repercussions?

The issue is clear, according to Dr Karen Phillip, counselling psychotherapist, who claims shame-based parenting simply does not work.

"It is ineffective and destructive," says Dr Phillip. "It guilts the child to believing they are bad, wrong, incompetent or useless. It can disconnect the child from their parents.

"A child is a developing human being. They are supposed to make mistakes along the way to learn."

While shaming a child is ineffective in the short term, Dr Phillip says it's the long-term effects that can be truly damaging.

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"Long term, the child can be a devastated child," she says. "Their self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem can be profoundly detrimentally damaged. Rebuilding from these fallacious self-beliefs can be a challenge.

"Shame-based parenting is a social public flogging."

Dr Phillip says many children naturally feel a sense of shame when they make a mistake, but says it's the adults' job to help the work through that feeling.

"We comfort them and convince them it is alright, before guiding them how to do it differently or better next time," she says.

Shame isn't the kind of emotion parents should be wielding to control their children's behaviour, according to Dr Phillip, because of its destructive nature.

"The definition of shame is an unpleasant self-conscious emotion linked with a negative evaluation of the self," she says. "It creates feelings of distress, exposure, distrust, hopelessness and worthlessness.

"There are no positives to shame. Some parents may use shame as a learning means, however, this fails on every level. Children learn by taking responsibility, being guided and shown what to do better or different next time." 

Rather than using same to control children's behaviour, Dr Phillip suggests engaging understanding, tolerance and acceptance that your child is a developing little human.

"They should not be expected to be perfect, not expected to get everything right nor to know how to always make the correct choices," she says. "In fact, many adults also fail these behaviours, therefore, to expect the child to be perfect then ridicule and shame a child for making a mistake is appalling."

Dr Phillip suggests any parent who uses shame as a means to teach their children correct behaviour needs to be educated on more beneficial ways to help their children make good choices.

"These parents don't know what they don't know, therefore, learning to parent appropriately is imperative to enable the child to develop correctly while accepting and understanding perfection is not required," she says.

"A child should be aiming to be the best they can be, with guidance and love."