Three Mistakes I’ve Made Using Shame and Guilt
By Jenny Webb, MA
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you came upon me in the park, where I was watching my child. She’s nine years old and generally a fairly responsible and cheerful child. But here, in this imaginary scenario, let’s say that she accidentally pushed her little brother in the swing so hard that he plopped out. (Don’t worry, he was fine.)
Now, of course there would need to be some parental guidance here so that she would understand that pushing her little brother that hard is not safe. But what would you think if, to address the issue, I smacked her on the face and then began yelling, “You’re so stupid! How could you be such an idiot! You’re acting like a baby! What did I do to deserve such a dumb daughter?!”
Clearly, my reaction as a parent here would be an inappropriate response to the situation. It’s easy to see how such comments are damaging: they shame my daughter, making her feel worthless, and produce guilt about her actions. As a parent, this situation is exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid. I never want to belittle and humiliate my daughter, and I certainly don’t want to make her associate guilt and shame with her hypothetical actions here.
I’ve been thinking about shame and guilt quite a bit lately, and while I can happily say that I’ve never had an incident like the one described above, upon reflection I’ve realized that there are other, subtler, ways that we as parents may inadvertently teach our children to feel shame and guilt, especially when we are negotiating the boundaries between sex, bodies, and intimacy. Here are three mistakes I’ve made in the past.
Mistake #1: I laughed at a question she asked
When my daughter was five and I was pregnant, she was naturally curious about the various processes involved in the whole procedure. At one point, she asked me in front of a friend if I was going to poop or pee the baby out. I was embarrassed by her question, so I laughed at her and sent her to go play. But in doing so, I taught her 1) that her questions were not important, and 2) that childbirth and female anatomy were somehow shameful.
Mistake #2: I shamed her into putting on some clothes
One day, I told my daughter to put on leggings because her skirt was too short and that nobody wanted to see her rear. Such reasoning implied that her body was something to be covered in order to avoid offending another person. I wish I had responded in a way that taught her to wear clothing she was comfortable in and that was appropriate for the activities she was participating in. Instead, I implied that she should dress to please other people, undermined her confidence in her body, and associated shame with her body being seen by others.
Mistake #3: I didn’t kiss her dad
My husband and I tend to be reserved about physical displays of affection in front of others, which is generally fine. But when I stopped to think about things from my daughter’s perspective, I realized that she’s seeing me avoid normal, healthy displays of affection due to shame and embarrassment. In doing so, I’ve inadvertently taught her to associate guilt with intimacy.
The good news here is that, with a little bit of reflection, I can learn to avoid inadvertently sending messages that associate shame and guilt with intimacy, body image, and sex. Even if I make another mistake, as a parent I can go back and correct it. And that’s the biggest lesson here: the best way we can strengthen our children against the mixed societal messages regarding sexuality, guilt, and shame is to practice honesty, even when it means correcting possible past mistakes.
Check out our books! 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering your child with Knowledge of Sexual Intimacy
Jenny Webb is an editor and publications production specialist who has worked in the industry since 2002. She graduated from Brigham Young University with an MA in comparative literature and has worked with a variety of clients ranging from international academic journals to indie science fiction authors. Born and raised in Bellevue, Washington, she currently lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her husband, Nick, and their two children.
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