No-one is born scared or ashamed, it is something we are taught – that there are bits of ourselves that are bad, worthless and should be kept hidden. We are told to give our children consequences, but what about the unintentional ones? What about the consequences that teach them they’re incapable when they’re still learning, or the ones that teach them they’re bad and disrespectful when they’re still figuring out what respect looks like. Children learn from consequences, yes, but not all consequences are equal.
I loved books as a child. My parents would buy ‘life lesson’ books, and with hope in their hearts they would place them on the shelves and trust that eventually their children would stop jumping on the furniture while they napped on Saturday afternoons. I remember reading about Susie, whose Mummy thoughtfully made biscuits one day. Susie climbed up on a chair to reach the cooling biscuits and CRASH! Biscuits and Susie were both crushed. Susie was contrite, she apologized and was forgiven. These books always ended with the same sentiment ‘and Susie NEVER disobeyed her Mummy and Daddy again.’
I always disobeyed Mummy and Daddy again. Then I was given consequences. Those consequences hurt.
Even at the tender age of five, I recall listening to those books and feeling a mixture of shame and awe at these children who demonstrated such majestic self-control, while I obviously possessed none. I would make up my mind to do better, and I would fail. Particularly when there were biscuits involved. While these books are clearly from another era, the sentiment still exists. Children should learn appropriate behavior quickly and effectively. Otherwise, there will be consequences!
Consequences are not linear, we cannot control what children learn and what they don’t. There is no direct relationship between spanking or yelling at a child (a commonly held strategy for ‘teaching children’) and subsequent behavior. Children are emotional beings and they throw their own interpretations around. We’re not handing them resilience and respect through spanking or yelling, we’re teaching them how to be violent. Altschul, Lee & Gershoff (2016) found that spanking was associated with increases in child aggression over time, above and beyond initial ‘expected child aggression.’ Parents weren’t trying to control an aggressive child; they had created an aggressive child, and the more they spanked the angrier the child got. When children get pushed out of the way for being slow or tutted at for running in public, we’re not teaching them how to behave in public spaces – we’re potentially teaching them it’s ok to push people who annoy you.
Words, unsurprisingly, can be worse (*heavy sigh*). Grille (2002) found that phrases thought to be relatively harmless (eg, You always do this! You’re so lazy!) have long lasting consequences to a child, often showing up as shame and low self-esteem years later. The words we use to describe children often become the words they use to describe themselves. Shellenbarger (2014) found that yelling was damaging when it was a personal attack, calling attention to a child’s faults rather then the situation. There is always a difference between a child’s behavior and who they are, and understanding this distinction can be the difference between shutting down a conversation by saying ‘Bad Boy!’ and opening one up with ‘Are you sure that was the right decision?’ Shaming children is particularly insidious, because unlike anger or fear, shame doesn’t have a physical emotional outlet (Grille, 2002). We can’t cry shame away, or shout it away, it doesn’t go out – it goes in, into our minds, into our hearts and there it sits. Waiting.
My autistic son has consequences, but I don’t always get a say in them and this breaks my heart. We went on holiday a little while ago, and on the last day we were lining up, waiting to collect our luggage and go home. Everyone was tired and a bit grumpy. My son climbed into a woman’s chair after she left. His back was to the world and he’d curled his head down as far as it would go, blocking out as much of the noise and the light as he could. Self-regulating. But she came back. She asked him to move, it was her chair and she was tired. Ok. I put a hand on his back and whispered to him. ‘No!’ he yelled. ‘Hurry up’ she said. He curled tighter. Then he climbed into my arms, pushed his head into my neck and screamed and screamed and screamed. ‘What a bad boy,’ she said, ‘he needs consequences.’ Later, he whispered to me ‘Am I bad? Everyone was looking at me.’ So yes, he has consequences, he has shame, and it’s my job to take these unintentional consequences and turn them into something approaching resilience. My job to shatter them without shattering him.
I am not a perfect parent, some days not even an ok parent, I fail, and I make mistakes. I have bribed and yelled. I have three loads of laundry to do, a freezer full of oven chips, a habit of recklessly throwing things labeled ‘do not put in dryer’ into the dryer, and an unshakeable belief that baked beans are a nutritious dinner. However I try to be aware of the unintentional consequences I hand my own children and those other children we meet as we go about our lives. I will not describe any of them as naughty, or bad, or selfish. I will not make predictions regarding their future because I do not own a crystal ball and if I did the cats would knock it off the table anyway. I know what shame feels like; I know how it sits heavy in your heart and the lies it tells you about your worth. I will not contribute to that. Fear and shame don’t have to be a part of consequences, only learning does.
Altschul, I., Lee, S. J. and Gershoff, E. T. (2016), Hugs, Not Hits: Warmth and Spanking as Predictors of Child Social Competence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78: 695–714. doi: 10.1111/jomf.1230
Grille, R. (2002). Good Children – At What Price? Retrieved from http://www.naturalchild.org/robin_grille/good_children.html
Shellenbarger, S. (2014). Talking to your child after you yell. Retrieved fromhttp://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304691904579348773978001590