It’s not always easy to tell when the random thing that came out of your mouth is motivating, or accidentally shaming. Sometimes the same exact words can be humiliating with one tone, and encouraging in another. That's especially true when you're a parent speaking to your child. That insidious little bugger of shame comes out in the best of parents. Hell, there are ways you don't realize you're shaming your preschooler this very minute, probably, which is why it's always worth taking a moment to sit back, examine our words, and consider how we can change the way we speak to our children for the better.
Brené Brown, world-renowned shame researcher, says shame used as a parenting tool has the opposite effect of what most parents hope to accomplish. It doesn't make kids want to do better, it makes them think they're inherently bad and incapable of doing better. If you're inherently bad no matter what you do, kids' brains understandably think, "Well, then why even try?" But a lot of us were raised with our parents thinking shame was a powerful tool for creating kids with a conscience. As a result, a lot of our automatic parenting skills are shame-based. Hey, I'm not bashing our parents; they did the best they could with what they themselves had. We also do the best we can with what we've got, and when you know better you do better.
So let's unpack the ways you may be shaming your preschooler without knowing it. Which, of course and thankfully, will help us do better.
Saying “Big Kids Don’t…”
I totally understand what we parents are trying to do when we say this. I'm certainly guilty of it myself. We're hoping that the incentive of acting like a "big kid" will help our kid learn appropriate, socially acceptable behavior.
This might also be accidentally shaming your preschooler by not giving them credit for behaving in developmentally appropriate ways, though. They might not be able yet to behave "like a big kid." Instead of scolding them, I'd like to commit to trying to meet them where they already are with empathy and gentle redirection. Care to join me?
Saying “Look How Well Your Friend Does It”
Some parenting books even advise to use this tactic — praising a friend or sibling who is doing the "right" behavior — to encourage your child to adhere to expectations. But I think this has too great a risk of backfiring. I remember my parents employing this tactic with me. The result? I'm a full grown adult with kids of my own and I still sometimes question if my family likes my older brother more than me.
Asking "Why Would You Do That?"
I am so guilty of this one. It makes sense to our adult minds to ask someone why they did something that we find unhelpful or destructive. We want reason and justification. But what we neglect to remember in the moments we ask our children "Why?" is that they likely don't even know why. In many cases of young children like mine they aren't yet capable of impulse control so they really don't know why they did something. It's our job to help them identify their feelings and the impact of their actions with love and compassion. This tells them they're not alone. Like falling down while learning to walk, we all have some behavioral hiccups while learning to reason.
Saying "You're Overreacting"
When we are overworked, under rested, and just plain out of energy, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, or even saying, that my child's big emotions are an overreaction. It helps me to remember that even if I wouldn't cry over the spilled milk that my 5-year-old is crying over, that doesn't make his emotions any less valid. He truly feels them whether I think there is reason to or not. Empathizing with his big emotions, no matter their cause, lets him know that it's OK for him to have those big emotions in the first place.
Conflating Bad Behavior With Loss Of Love
A common practice when I was a little one was for grandparents and other non-primary caregivers to say if I didn't stop whining they would no longer come see me. The adult in this situation is probably trying to convey acceptable behavior to the preschooler, stating that people really don't want to be around a kid who whines all the time. But what the kid hears is that their behavior could make trusted adults not love them anymore. It's a great way to multiply shame.
Regardless of how irritating a child's nagging is, it's vital that they know there is nothing they could do that would make us stop loving them. It's called unconditional love.
Saying "Look At How Your Sister's Doing It"
OK, OK. I truly believe there is a way to recognize one kid without shaming the other. I know that even holding one up as a role model to the other for certain things is good for both of them. But — and that's a big but — this tactic needs to be used with extreme caution lest you end up with a kid who really feels like you love your other kid more.
Because my eldest is autistic, modeling from others' appropriate behaviors is incredibly helpful for them. It's also totally valuable for them to see themselves as a role model to their younger siblings. It gives them a sense of pride and responsibility. So it's important that I make a point to acknowledge my elementary aged child and my preschool-aged child as role models to each other equally. Otherwise, I run the risk of that shame-based "my sister is loved more than me because they're better than me" mentality developing in my already-sensitive preschooler. Besides, this way is much more likely to increase sibling bonds than sibling rivalries.
It's true that love is a lot. But loving your children is really not enough, at least that's the case for me. The good news is I can and do use the strength of that love to do the work necessary in figuring out how to avoid inadvertently shaming them while trying to also teach them how to behave in a way that makes them conscious citizens.