The other day I found myself the victim (or perpetrator?) of a large parenting fail. That’s right, folks, I have parenting fails. Many of them. Daily.
You probably are aware of this if you read my blog or follow me on social media. I like to keep it real around here and real means confessing that I am still—after 3.9 kids—learning how to do this parenting thing one mistake at a time. Here are some revelations I had the other day about how I am (and maybe we are) guilty of shaming our kids and why we should stop asking our kids WHY.
I’ll set the scene for you: Rob was gone and I was putting all three kids down to bed at the same time. I’ve got this down to finely tuned process now, thanks to Cooper being a (mostly) easy bedtime girl and the boys being (mostly) fine other than a few reminders to get back in bed after they want water/to pee/a kiss/scratch a bug bite/tell me their deepest hopes and dreams. This night, though, I sent the boys in to brush their teeth and they got into a boy-fight in the bathroom which resulted in screaming and tears. Which then resulted in waking Cooper up, so MORE screaming and tears.
I dealt with the boys after figuring out what exactly went down in Bathroom Brawl 2014, we prayed, and (should have) moved on. (Our method of dealing with discipline involves finding out what happened, doling out discipline calmly, praying with them, and moving past it with forgiveness.) Instead, I was frustrated that I had to go back in to soothe Cooper, who was beside herself. You see, at this point, I should have already been out of the room, watching a movie or writing a blog post or eating ice cream or dancing naked through the house or any of those things parents do when the kids go to sleep.
“I’m really disappointed in you boys,” I said. Possibly more than once.
Sawyer began to cry. “Mommy, stop saying that,” he said. “You’re making me sad.”
And I realized: rather than moving on after the discipline, I continued to talk to the boys as though we hadn’t already dealt with things. I held onto my frustration and brought it up again and again. The worst thing: I was actually shaming them with my words. And I was asking the worst question you can ask: WHY.
Why is a great question when asked in curiosity. But when we ask this question in discipline situations, the simple question why acts as a shame-inducing agent. It’s as though we couldn’t BELIEVE that our kids could possibly write on the walls or pee in a mason jar or hit someone in the face with a pool noodle.
Shame is one tool that doesn’t work in parenting (or life). If you’ve read Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, you feel me. Guilt can have a healthy place in our lives, making us realize when we have done something that needs to be made right. It’s that nagging feeling that doesn’t leave us until we have dealt with a legitimate issue. shame is that evil whisper that lingers, telling you it can never be right. Shame haunts. Shame lies. Shame is the opposite of healthy and doesn’t let you heal. It keeps your pain raw and wet, a festering open wound. (Click to Tweet) Shame is a tool I NEVER want to use with my kids.
And yet, despite my best efforts, I sometimes find myself shaming my kids. (Click to Tweet)
The other night it happened when I told them I was disappointed AFTER we had dealt with their disobedience. Often I think parent shaming comes in the form of asking why. The question itself is not a bad one. If you have a toddler, you probably have them asking you why on an hourly basis. It’s a favorite question of curious kids. But I’m not talking about the curious kind of why. I’m talking about the kind of why that really means What were you THINKING? Or How could you DO that?
Growing up in Virginia we sometimes had fabulous snows. One year our whole neighborhood gathered on one of the steepest driveways for hours, taking turns zooming down on wooden sleds. I remember being at the bottom watching my brother’s friend Douglas (who was about three, five years younger than me) prepare to head down with his dad. I began forming a snowball with my mittened hands without really thinking about it. I did not have a plan for the snowball at first, but as Douglas and his father began down the hill toward me, I launched the snowball. Right at Douglas.
It found its mark: right in the center of his face.
You can bet I heard it from his father—as did the whole neighborhood while he stood there shouting at me, Douglas still crying behind him and wiping snow from his eyes. “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?”
I could only shrug. Because the truth was I had absolutely NO IDEA why I had thrown the snowball into his son’s face. The thought occurred to me and so I did it. The end.
Do you remember doing something when you were young just because? There isn’t always a reasonable why. (Click to Tweet)
When it comes to much of my children’s behavior, I think the answer to the question why is simply because. Because they felt like it. Because they wanted to see what would happen. Because the thought occurred to them. Just…BECAUSE.
That blank look on my boys’ faces when I say, “WHY did you punch your brother in your face?” is blank because they cannot answer the question. There is no answer a lot of the time. Or the answer doesn’t even matter very much because the why doesn’t matter. A punch in the face is a punch in the face, no matter the motive. Very rarely does it change my discipline because I can’t think of any reason justifying a punch to the face.
What often happens is that my question “why” becomes a shame-inducing question. It is borne of my frustration rather than my curiosity. My boys become unsettled and uncomfortable. I see them racking their brains, trying to figure out some kind of answer that will please me. What kind of answer would please me?
I DON’T EVEN KNOW.
What I do know is that asking them why when I am speaking out of frustration, I awaken whisper of shame. When I respond with shock at their bad behavior, I am communicating to my kids that they are doing something abnormal. Instead of something that they often do just because they’re kids. Just because they feel like it. Just because they are young and don’t yet have the impulse control that I do.
The sense of shame I convey is not helpful for growing and moving forward. Shame traps us both.
Let me be clear that I am not against dealing quickly and fully with disobedience. We should all expect that our little ones are sometimes going to hit someone in the face with a snowball or start a bathroom fight just because. That doesn’t mean we should let it slide, but when we deal with it, we can do so in a way that doesn’t involve shock or start the unhealthy cycle of shame. Disobedience is normal. What would be abnormal is two brothers that grow up and NEVER punch each other in the face. As a parent, I can deal with the behavior and even the attitude or heart behind it. I think it’s healthier to realize this behavior is the rule, rather than the exception. It’s normal, but not acceptable.
Seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? But I really do think it makes a difference when we are dealing with discipline.
When I use the question “why,” I hope that it is in the effort of starting a real conversation with my kids. I hope it is motivated by curiosity to know them more, not because I’m frustrated with something they’ve done. Why do you like ninjas so much? Why did you choose to build a castle with such a high wall? Why is green your favorite color? NOT EVER why can’t you just obey? Why did you disobey AGAIN?
This is definitely MY fail. But if you recognize anything familiar in my story, I hope it is an encouragement to you as well. Let us all deal firmly and well with those attitudes and actions that need it, but without the kind of shock and outrage that results in shaming our kids.