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Shame On You: Is It Ever Right for Children To Feel Shame?

  • Sarah Hamaker Contributor
  • 2011 28 Jan
Shame On You: Is It Ever Right for Children To Feel Shame?

"I'm ashamed of you." "I'm disappointed in you." "You should be ashamed of yourself." We've all probably heard those phrases as children or used them ourselves as parents. But today's heightened focus on a child's self-esteem and a movement away from expecting children to feel bad about their misbehavior has caused shame to fall out of favor. Even believers struggle with whether or not shame has a place in parenting.

"Part of our departure from any sort of biblical perspective and worldview about what it means to be human has been to put out of style the message that children should feel ashamed of their bad behavior," says Sally Breedlove, one of the authors of The Shame Exchange. "We have just obliterated the message that one day we'll have to give an account of our actions. Instead, it's become all about our own personal happiness."

"The post-modern idea that there are no absolutes, no right or wrong, has had a big sway in our culture—that what's true for me is what's true for me, and that there is no absolute standard outside of myself," says Matt Bullen, a pastor who blogs about parenting at blessedfamilyministries. "In our post-Christian culture, the idea that we should live however we want and feel no regret is what's in style now. But our consciences are still alive and well, as much as we try to tell ourselves differently."

The Shame Game

Whether or not we intend for it to happen, children do feel shame because of their own actions or because of the actions of others. Because shame has been shoved aside in discussions of parenting, parents might wonder if it is ever good for a child to feel shame.

"I think what we've done with our self-esteem culture is to bend over backwards so that we never say anything really bad about a child," says Breedlove. "Sometimes as Christians we take too strong of a stance when we say things like, ‘You're a good person, God loves you,' and ‘You're very good but your actions were wrong.' Deep inside, we all know we're tied to what we do."

"I try to model my parenting after God's parenting of us, and the Bible is clear that if we are responsible for something bad, we should feel shame," says Bullen. "God created our conscience to feel bad when we've done wrong."

Breedlove distinguishes between right shame and what she calls heaped-on shame, the kind of shame a child feels because of something someone else does. Heaped-on shame is bad shame and should have no place in anyone's life.

Bullen echoes that thought, saying that "I believe a lot of the shame people feel today is misplaced shame because we shouldn't feel shame for things we had no control over or that others have done to us."

Breedlove advocates approaching the issue of shame by framing it with the Gospel when dealing with a child's misbehavior. "Tell a child that what he did was wrong, that everyone has a war going on inside between good and bad. Tell him that until he has Jesus in his heart, his chooser is broken, that he cannot always choose to do good. Jesus forgives him when he does wrong and can help change his chooser," she says. "That acknowledgement helps the child to think, ‘I feel bad about what I did and maybe I should feel bad,' but without the hopeless, helpless shame."

But not everyone feels that shame should be a part of child-rearing. Dr. Kevin Leman, Christian psychologist and author of Have a New Kid by Friday, says that shame has no place in parenting. "Shame should not be in our language. It's judgmental and it doesn't help any situation," he says. Instead, Leman believes parents should hold their children accountable for their behaviors, and that in turn will help a child feel good guilt over his actions.

Shameful Behavior

All children misbehave sometimes. Helping children realize that their struggles with sin are struggles everyone has can help them understand rightful shame. "One of the things that really struck us as we did the research for The Shame Exchange is how God himself calls people to be ashamed of what they've done," says Breedlove. "We as parents should deal honestly with shame as part of our Christian calling."

Bullen recommends appealing to the conscience of the child to help correct bad behaviors. "Say my little boy hits his younger sister. I would say to him, ‘Do you think it's right? What is your heart telling you?' I would appeal to that kind of shame because if he's already feeling it, I'm just highlighting what he already knows in his conscience," he says.

Words to avoid when talking with children about their behaviors are things like, "I'm ashamed of you," and "I'm so disappointed in you." "That's not very accurate because theologically, my children are depraved human beings. Once I realize that—and reject the modern philosophies that say everyone's basically good—then I'm not ashamed or surprised when my children do something wrong. Instead, every time they do something wrong, it's an opportunity to teach them," says Bullen.

Leman suggests avoiding continually bringing up the misbehavior because that would develop a wrong sense of shame in a child. "Shame is not part of the Christian walk, but accountability is," he says. "Hold your children accountable, just like God holds us as adults accountable."

Using Shame for Good

One of the ways we can make sure we're seeing the right kind of shame in our children is by plenty of exposure to Scriptures and godly examples. "I don't think we have to help kids feel the right kind of shame if we're raising them in a way that they see their parents trying to live a life of integrity, kindness and faithfulness in an atmosphere where truth is the plumb line," says Breedlove. "As their consciences develop by their exposure to godly parents and Scripture, they will feel shame. Our job as parents is to help our children differentiate between good shame and bad shame—and to teach them how to respond to good shame and how to reject bad shame."

Bullen points out that using shame over clear, moral issues can have a positive effect on children. However, he cautions against using shame for the child behaving childlike, such as spilling milk at the table. "God is patient with us and we need to be patient with our children," he says.

"Break the bad communication habits that are handed down from generation to generation to change from shame-based parenting to accountability-driven parenting," suggests Leman. "Separate the sin from the sinner, and respond to the action, not the actor."

The best way to cultivate a right sense of shame in children is to "talk all the time about righteousness, to put up the standard of what's good," says Bullen. "I find a lot of parents talking all the time about what's bad. I have made it my goal to talk about what is righteous, to point them to the truth in the Bible and in Christ. Then when something happens in their lives that doesn't add up with that, they feel genuine, proper, godly sorrow because they know what is right so well, that when they deviate from it, their conscience pricks them."

February 1, 2011

Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at