I hope, as I'm sure we all do, that every parent has the best intentions. Still, even parents with the best of intentions can inadvertently shame or hurt their children. Usually, as parents, the best we can do is constantly examine our choices and stay aware of our words and actions. That's why, even though it's difficult and uncomfortable, it's important to educate yourself on the ways you don’t realize you’re accidentally shaming your baby. If it means you’ll try to replace these things with what you actually mean, I can assure you that self-reflection is worth it.
I'd understand if some, or even most, parents scoff and say, "But babies don’t understand what I’m saying, anyway.” While that's technically true, research tells us babies are shaped by what their parents say even before they're able to talk themselves. In other words, how we use language is also important, and what we say shapes our feelings and behaviors.
Take, for example, when you’re trying to master a new skill. If one person's self-talk is, “Damn! I’m never going to get this! I’m so stupid!” while another's is, "Whoa, I’ve really improved. Though I currently struggle with this skill, with practice I am bound to keep getting better," who do you think will improve? When that same practice is applied to you and what you’re saying to your baby, you might notice how you're not only shaping your own thoughts and actions towards the child, but you’re shaping what is and is not normal for them to experience in their relationship with you.
If you’re anything like me, you want to try to say what you actually mean instead of accidentally shaming your baby. Even something as seemingly innocuous as your automatic word choice can make a difference.
When You Say “There’s No Reason To Cry”
This has slipped out of my mouth more times than I care to admit. In an effort to soothe a crying baby, us parents are essentially trying to assure our littles that they're safe and that we'll always take care of them. Saying they don't have a reason to cry, however, is actually and inadvertently telling them they're wrong to be scared or sad or whatever it is they're feeling and probably cannot label.
What I would invite you to consider, instead, is saying something along the lines of, “I’m here for you. Mama’s here. I know you’re sad. Shh. Shh.” This lets baby know their feelings are valid and that you're there to take care of them with those big feelings.
When You Say "Be A Good Boy/Girl/Baby"
This seems like such a little thing, sure, but if you're anything like me you'll realize that when you think about it for just a second longer than it takes you to say, your stomach drops. If I say, "Be a good girl when mom's gone," it implies that my kids' inherent worth as "good" or "bad" is contingent upon their behavior. What I really want to teach them is that they are good inherently no matter their behavior.
Brene Brown, shame researcher, tells us teaching a child that they're bad (i.e. shame) is likely to encourage the kid to fulfill that prophecy. Whereas, teaching a child that their behavior has consequences and that you, as their parent, believe they can make good choices — choices helps them develop shame resilience and internal motivation.
Yes, it does start this young.
When You Compare Siblings
This one is tricky. Of course us parents want to acknowledge good behavior when we see it, but we have to be careful not to make the other child feel singled out for not being like their sibling.
Sometimes I'll slip and say something like, "Why can't you do it like your brother? He's great at sweeping!" Yuck! Even writing it makes me feel gross.
When You Use Shame
OK, I know what you're thinking. You can't use "shame" in the definition of ways you're accidentally shaming your child. I beg to differ. A lot of millennial people (especially those of us who are "older" millennials) think that you can use shame as a parenting tool.
Shame never makes kids stronger or more behaved, though. The research tells us that without question or exception, shame makes people more likely to act out and develop poor self-esteem. As Brene Brown elaborates, shame is paralyzing while guilt, when used intentionally, judiciously, and in moderation, can be a motivator.
When You Tell Stories About Your Baby
When an eager and excited parent tells their friends a story about his or her kids, it's easy to get into the habit of exchanging parental exhaustion stories. You know, the kinds that are like, "The baby would not go to sleep all night! When they finally did my 5 year old burst into the room with a nightmare. I'll never sleep again!" I'm totally guilty of this.
It's not like I can't ever openly share or be honest about the trials of parenthood, because I can and should. It's just that, if it's happening all the time the baby will learn that they are nothing but a hardship to me. I have to remember to tell more glowing adoration stories, instead of just focusing on hardship stories, especially when the baby is within ear shot.
When You Use Religion
"Jesus expects you to finish your peas."
Though it may be effective in the moment, using a religious figure to modify behavior can ultimately be harmful to your child's sense of safety and unconditional love. This might cause the child to question whether they are really lovable.
When You Demand Certain Manners
Sometimes a switch of a word or two can have a profound meaning shift for a child. When the baby gets a little bigger and I'm teaching "please" and "thank you," it's most helpful when I explain versus demand. For example, "Son, when we're grateful we say thank you. Can we practice?"
When You Try To Teach Appropriate Mealtime Etiquette
Babies throw food on the ground, and it's totally developmentally appropriate. So even though it is my job to let them know that we keep our food on our plates, how I relay this information has an impact.
Try these two different statements out loud and see which one you'd prefer:
"Tommy! What are you doing? Why would you throw that food on the floor? I just cleaned it. That's not OK! We don't throw food on the floor!"
"Oh, Tommy, what a silly little boo. What do we do with food? We keep it on the plate, yes we do."
Yeah, tone matters.
When You Consistently Joke About Dirty Diapers
We all know diapers can be stinky and nasty. Being playful about just how stinky and nasty is totally fine. Consistently commenting on the baby's stink or dirtiness, however, may sneak up on them later. As with everything in parenting, playfulness, intention, and moderation in all things seems to work pretty well for me.
When You Fail To Apologize
I know some people might think I'm being too sensitive or too much of a touchy-feely therapist. After all, babies are babies. How much can they really understand? The truth of brain development is that a lot of the systems that become important later for memory retrieval, emotion regulation, and shame resilience are laying down their foundations during the fourth trimester. I want those foundations to be strong for my children. I want those foundations to be built on gentle words, encouragement, and, when appropriate, apologies.
The good news about shame is that as parents not only do we have the power to instill it, we also have the power to repair it. Everyone makes mistakes and owning that for ourselves helps our children learn it for themselves.