When I was 5-years-old, I got caught shoplifting. We were at a local vegetable and fruit stand and I saw one of those big carpenter pencils. I wanted it to draw with, and I took it. I knew what I was doing was wrong, because I hid it. Back in the car, I took it out to admire it and my mother saw me with it.
She immediately knew what I had done, and turned the car around. She walked me back into the store and, through my tears, had me confess, apologize, and promise to never to it again. And guess what? I haven’t. A life of crime was not for me.
Kids can be naughty. And they can be naughty on purpose. My mom made no excuses for my behavior and I felt ashamed that day. Not shamed in the way we use the term in the more current culture, but embarrassed by the knowledge that my own choices had caused that consequence that day.
There are two occasions that I remember working with kids that this concept of a healthy amount of shame came up, with different outcomes. In one instance, one of the kids had been targeting another during group with mean behavior. When the conflict escalated and the second child tried to defend themself, that first child tried to blame the second one. Since I had witnessed the entire situation, I wasn’t buying it and told the first child that I had seen it, I wanted it to stop, and that she had asked for and deserved the response she had received. I then left her to think about it, and you could see the struggle with a small dose of understanding that she had done wrong. After a time, she rejoined the session and we continued from where we had left off. The mean moments ended.
On another occasion, a child deliberately destroyed something in my office that was important to the people who were working on it. When I firmly called them to the carpet about that choice, there were tears. I explained that the feeling they were having was something called shame. It was okay to feel it, and should be felt when we do something that we know is wrong. Unfortunately, the story that the parent got about the incident was that it was an accident, and the parent took the child’s untruth as truth. What does that teach? That you can get away with things and people will make excuses for your choices.
I’m not talking at all about shaming children who struggle with symptoms of ADHD or have other challenges. I’m talking about the deliberate naughtiness that all children are capable of. Shame is an emotion that all humans feel. Negative emotions exist for a reason. A healthy dose of shame is part of our moral compass. When we do something we know is wrong, shame helps us find our way back to right.