Kids, Guilt and Embarrassment

The past several decades have been a parental anomaly.  Parents have been concerned with their child’s self-esteem and image, and have often wished to be considered as much friend as parent.  That means that there’s generally less discipline and control and techniques that our grandparents used have gone by the wayside.  Two tools that have fallen out of use are embarrassment and old-fashioned guilt.  Is it ever appropriate to embarrass the child or make him feel guilty?

Actually, yes and I’ve used them both on occasion as they’re tools to be used to maintain discipline and teach, as much as groundings, time-outs, privilege-loss and old-fashioned jawboning.  This doesn’t mean that they’re used on every occasion – and they should actually be used sparingly – but neither are they to be avoided.

Embarrassment and guilt are powerfully negative feelings and kids are like everybody in that they’ll act to avoid the sense that these feelings bring.  But these are actually learned sensations and if a child doesn’t know to be embarrassed or feel guilty, then she simply won’t.  I think that there’s actually some value in these negatives; each reflects an awareness of other people and indicates that the child understands that there are other beings in the world apart from themselves. 

Embarrassment’s value is in helping the child to learn to control impulses and exercise some thought process instead of just doing something without any consideration as to the consequences.  When there’s an obvious and glaring outcome, there might even be no need on my part to embarrass the child since the action speaks solely for itself.  For example, if Junior is playing a sport and his goofing off on the field leads to a goal for the other team, there’s no need for me to highlight anything since his teammates will swiftly and certainly bring it to his attention.  In those instances in which Junior has been embarrassed by his actions, I’ve had to do nothing more than just acknowledge quietly that he had reason to be embarrassed.  Yeah, son.  You should have been embarrassed – so what do you take away from this?  A kid’s parents might not want to embarrass the child but his peers will certainly think nothing of it and a few will take to it like a pig to slop.  Where I’ve come to really utilize embarrassment is when my child is absolutely old enough to know better and the behavior is so glaringly stupid that it borders on or crosses into dangerous territory.  Teens are notorious for lacking the ability to assess risk, let along simply judgment in many cases and even when presented with the possible negative outcomes, will simply think that can’t happen to me.  This is especially the case when there are multiple kids together and absolutely none of them is thinking clearly, in which a cold dose of embarrassment will quickly bring things to a halt.  For example, finding three teenage boys playing tag in the rafter of a picnic pavilion more than ten feet above a concrete slab floor brought a vividly phrased condemnation to bring the point home.  Maybe you won’t fall, but you can be damned sure that you’ll get your self-esteem mangled if not your ribcage.  Likewise, misbehavior with a vehicle stands as ground for embarrassment and outright humiliation if the need arises.  Kids and teens might not remember reason, but they will acutely remember embarrassment before their peers.  Like many disciplinary situations however, there has to be a calmer follow-up conversation to bring the point home.  Pairing the immediate embarrassment with a later conversation can have a positive outcome.

Guilt differs from embarrassment in that the concern arises out of the consequences involving another instead of oneself.  It doesn’t have to have such a public cause and few, if any, need to be aware of the sense of guilt.  Most kids and teens with any conscience will experience the pangs of guilt and it usually isn’t necessary to inflict that sense on the child.  Where I have had to inflict a sense of guilt on one of my children has been when there’s been no realization that the behavior involves another person; the child will spin in his or her own little world unaware of how the behavior or attitude affects someone else.  In those rare instances, I’ve mentioned the concept of shame and the shock of the language and tone has usually been enough to bring the point home.  Again, it’s imperative that you talk with your child soon afterward so as to wade through the morass of upset and conflicting emotions until the other side has been reached.

Having to contend with a child who’s out of control requires some quick judgment on your part and it’s not my intent to provide wholesale endorsement of these two measures.  However, they do have their place and value and if you find yourself in the heat of the moment utilizing them, don’t necessarily condemn yourself as a poor parent or incompetent.  You’re actually doing the kid a favor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *