No one knows anything he didn’t learn.
That’s not a theological statement, if you’re looking for offenses against that form of correctness (I will be happy to discuss innocence and depravity in another forum). What I’m saying is that adults are acting unreasonably if they humiliate children because the youngsters haven’t yet learned adult things.
And not just unreasonable; mean. The message kids get is, “If you don’t know what I know, there’s something wrong with you.”
Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson called this adultism in their book, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World:
The language of adultisms is, “Why can’t you ever? How come you never? Surely you realize! How many times do I have to tell you? Why are you so childish? When will you ever grow up? Did you? Can you? Will you? Won’t you? Are you? Aren’t you?
I have been that guy. Most notably (though, not exclusively) in my own home. When our daughter Kate stood at the threshold of adolescence, she sometimes seemed a bit, let us say...irrational. It didn’t last long, but the hormone bath her body gave her brain turned Kate inside out for a few weeks. Almost overnight she went from pleasant and engaging to surly and sarcastic (I have no idea where she saw that sort of behavior modeled). One night—I no longer remember the provocation—I marched into Kate’s bedroom and with language I don’t use against anybody told her we wouldn’t be putting up with her…um, nonsense.
The shock and pain in Kate’s eyes broke my heart because I saw I had just broken hers. I fled her room in a fit of self-loathing. I was particularly ashamed because my day job at the time was working with adolescents in a church.
I knew plenty about puberty. But I forgot everything I knew when my own daughter got a little cranky. I viewed her with contempt for not being able to surf the hormonal tide surging through her body. I should’ve been flogged.
When I apologized, Kate readily forgave me and I believe she did her best to overlook my meanness that night. I’m grateful she didn’t repay contempt with contempt.
Shaming is a transaction where a sentence in the interrogative form—it ends with a question mark, right?—doesn’t indicate an honest question. The words What were you thinking!? can be asked in a tone that conveys a message so humiliating that the person on the receiving end, if he responds at all, can respond only one way: I don’t know.
Anything else is just asking for it. In any case, I don’t know may well be an honest answer.
The toddler who sticks his finger in a light socket isn’t thinking about much of anything; he’s just poking around. At least I wasn’t thinking about much of anything when I did that. But I still remember the moment I made contact. It occurs to me now that I already associated pain with punishment because my emotional response to that shock was guilt. Hmm...
The college student who overdraws her checking account, the young driver who ruins a truck transmission doing reverse donuts in a muddy field, the ten year-old who uses steel wool to clean a silver serving tray—they weren’t thinking about how they could break something and they certainly weren’t thinking about what they could do to embarrass themselves.
So why shame them further? Did anybody die? Even if the answer is yes, that’s no reason to belittle a kid if he didn’t get to that part of the training yet. Nobody knows anything he didn’t learn.
One other thought: Shaming sets kids up for undue influence from outside sources. That influence may take the form of every parent’s nightmare, the dreaded peer pressure (Why is this always and only assumed to be negative?). It could just as well lead to entertaining overtures from a twenty-two year old man looking for a hookup.
Shaming is a setup because it moves a child’s point of reference outside her own cognitive understanding to someone else’s point of view. If an adult builds a convincing case that the child is stupid and cites as evidence that the child doesn’t know what the adult knows, then the next logical question in the child’s mind is, What else don’t I know? At which point he’s in danger of becoming easy pickins’ for anyone who wants to exploit him.
Children who are shamed grow up to form unhealthy relationships—with their parents and significant others—because they are inclined to be people-pleasers and liars.
I suspect it takes one to know one. My mother—sweet woman that she was at the end of her life—was an accomplished shamer for most of the years I knew her. When I was young, if I did anything unconventional she would look scandalized and say, “Jimmy! Be ashamed!” She may have been half-kidding, but I took her advice as if it was dead earnest. And my father...there was a man with a staggering capacity for shaming. Two occasions just a few months apart exemplify why I was wary of him as a young adolescent.
We were driving downtown for something or other and my father was doing a slow burn. Finally, he vented: “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
I was surprised and embarrassed by the question because I had selected my wardrobe with care. This was the winter of 1966 or ‘67 and an acrylic crew neck sweater without a shirt was just about as groovy as anything could be—in my view anyway.
My dad didn’t see it that way. Maybe he thought folks would think he couldn’t afford to buy me a shirt. He said, “People will see you like that in public. You’re gonna ruin every damn reputation I have.” I had never heard him curse even a little bit. I said nothing.
A few months later I spent the night with my closest friend, a smallish kid who was as brainy and funny as I wanted to be. When my father arrived to pick me up at Scott’s place he found us wrestling. I sensed his disapproval as we made our way to the car. Once the doors were closed he said, “You shouldn’t be playing with a little guy like that; a big ol’ boy like you. People will think you’re fairies.” Yikes, Dad! What were you thinking? (See what I did there?)
Here’s the thing. Guilt is the appropriate blush response that says I did something wrong, I should make it right. Shame is a deeper blush that says I am something wrong and I can never be made right. I was well into my 30’s before I started to recognize shaming for what it is. Shaming is a lie. It’s a damned lie.
— from Raising Adults
— from Raising Adults