THE BLOG
01/21/2014 02:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

Shame Shame Shame! The Root of Bullying

There is a new "discipline" fad going around: Your kid does something bad -- you post it on the Internet. You put a sign around their neck that defines their "crime" for all the world to see. After all, when they win trophies we do the same don't we?

The Internet has taken on the form of the public shaming square. The belief is that communal shaming is far more powerful than shaming on a one-on-one basis.

The tragedy here is that responses have been "high-fives" applauding the parents for being brave to put their children's limitations out there.

This doesn't surprise me, given that millions just don't know what to do when their kids' behavior goes awry. Desperate, many are willing to try just about anything, which accounts for the popularity of many of these latest "discipline" fads.

Parents truly believe that this sort of public shaming will leave a long-lasting impact on their children, ensuring that they will never engage in negative behaviors again. Little do they realize that these reactions do little to create the introspection necessary to limit negative behaviors and ALL to do with creating shame which is the true driver behind them.

When we enforce discipline on our children, we are punishing them. We may not like to admit this, but these actions in the name of "discipline" are highly punitive -- not just obvious ones but also our passive-aggressive ones.

Any "discipline" that is enforced by an action that the parent DOES to the child is punitive on some level. It is the opposite of allowing consequences to teach our children. And our children know there is something desperately askew in this method.

Children resent being punished, on a public level or on a subtle level -- resent us for punishing them. To punish only develops shame which transforms into hostility, while further into the teens can lead to serious acting out. In contrast, allowing natural consequences to teach a child develops self-discipline, which is what we want in our children.

Enforced discipline does the exact opposite of developing self-discipline in our children. Punishment undercuts the teaching power of natural consequences.

Oh, it's certainly true that you can bully kids into good behavior. And not just kids. Husbands and wives, bosses at work, and some of higher rank in the armed forces have long bullied to get the results they want.

The fact is, bullying works -- for a time. Then it boomerangs.

When we bully someone into conforming, we might well destroy what may be the last shreds of self-worth the individual has. Because it's only from a low sense of their worth than any child engages in bullying another child -- just as this is the only reason a parent bullies their own child, a spouse bullies their spouse, or a superior bullies someone of lower rank in the forces (a topic we've increasingly hearing about in the media, such as NPR this week).

While people can be bullied into behaving a certain way for a time, human beings only live a lifetime as good people doing good things for others when they feel good themselves. Feeling good begets doing good.

It's long been believed that humans are fundamentally flawed, and that they need to be forced into doing good. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We come into the world as wonderful individuals whose greatest joy comes from bringing joy to others.

Think about a time when you felt really great. Perhaps you just fell in love, or got a new job you really wanted or a promotion. Doesn't the grass look greener, the sky bluer? Doesn't it make you want to share your happiness with the world?

Sadly, through homelife, school, and society in general, we soon learn not to feel too good about ourselves. The less we feel great, the more we exhibit behavior toward others that's not all that great.

So how do you bring about a change of heart?

We change the focus.

The focus till now has always been on the child. People want to know how to get their children to "behave differently." This is where I believe we miss the point.

In my own life, I put the focus on myself. As a clinical psychologist who sees many parents and their children, whenever my daughter exhibits less than desirable behavior, I ask what this is saying about me as a parent.

Children are a mirror of our own unresolved issues. So if a child bullies, that child's needs are in some way going unmet. No child who feels delightful within themselves -- whose emotional needs are being met because they feel truly "heard" by the parent -- bullies like this.

The bullying is the child's scream for help, not for punishment, and certainly not for shaming.

Once you realize that a low sense of self-worth -- stemming from not truly feeling valued by and connected to the parent -- is at the root of the bullying, to lower how good the child feels about herself even more by shaming her could boomerang in a terrible way. How would the parent feel if the child no longer felt their life was worth living?

What we need to address as parents are:

  • Where am I as the parent failing to connect with my child?
  • What in the child longs to be recognized, but is being ignored?
  • How can I help mitigate the feelings of inferiority and shame that my child experiences?
  • And most importantly, how am I projecting my own internal shame onto my child?
Unless we begin to turn the spotlight within and ask these difficult but essential questions, our children will live in the legacy of shame which will continue into future generations. And the epidemic of bullying will continue to soar.

My next book:
Out of Control
Why disciplining your child doesn't work and what will
addresses these issues in a practical and engaging way.