08/26/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Understanding Children's Emotions: The Importance of Pride and Shame

Discussions of children's motivations and behavior too often overlook the importance of feelings of pride and shame. A child's need to feel proud -- and to avoid feelings of shame -- is a fundamental motivation, and remains fundamental, throughout her life. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the psychological development and emotional health of our children (and in human relations more generally).

Shame is our instinctive response to failure or inadequacy, especially the public exposure of inadequacy. Embarrassment is a temporary and mild form of shame; humiliation, aloneness and self-hatred are severe forms of shame.

Children experience feelings of shame when they suffer any social rejection; when they are unable to learn; when they are defeated in competition; when they are bullied, insulted or taunted; and when they seek acceptance and approval from admired adults but are, instead, subjected to criticism or derogation.

When children tell us that they are anxious, they are often anxious about the possibility of feeling ashamed.

Children with difficulties in motor coordination or delays in language development experience shame early in childhood. Somewhat later, difficulties in learning (especially learning to read) always evoke in children a deep feeling of shame. (The poet Philip Schultz has written movingly about growing up with anxiety and shame in his recent memoir, My Dyslexia.)

In childhood, shame leads to avoidance and withdrawal and then, in adolescence, to desperate attempts to alleviate, or get rid of, this painful state of mind. Many experiences that evoke a feeling of shame (for example, experiences of exclusion or ridicule) are uniquely painful, and the feeling of shame, perhaps more than any other emotion, stays with us.

I can still recall, more vividly than I would like, moments of shame from many years ago when, as a son (and as a father) I let my parents (and my children) down. Although I have long since been forgiven for these personal failures, my memories are still painful. Thankfully, I am able to put these moments in perspective; they are now more than balanced by moments of pride. In this way, we should also help our children put in perspective their own moments of embarrassment and failure.

When children are successful and feel proud, they instinctively look to others. When they fail and feel ashamed, they look away. This is in the nature of pride and shame; we all attempt to hide or cover up what we are ashamed of. Pride is the antithesis of shame. The feeling of pride is accompanied by an outward movement and a desire to show and tell others, to exhibit or show off. Pride is expansive, both in action and in our imagination. Shame contracts, in our posture (our shoulders fall in and we look downward and away) and in our thoughts and imagination -- in our setting of goals and in what we consider possible for ourselves.

A child's expectation of feeling proud or ashamed decisively influences her choices -- those situations she actively seeks and those she avoids. Shame lowers aspirations. Pride raises aspirations. The evolutionary psychologist Glenn Weisfeld succinctly explains, "We anticipate pride and shame at every turn and shape our behavior accordingly."

Especially, children want their parents to share in their pride and to be proud of them. Our feeling that our parents are proud of us is a sustaining influence throughout our lives and a protective factor in the emotional lives of our children. The opposite is also true. Parental scorn is among the most deeply destructive forces in the psychological development of any child.

We therefore need to let our children know, as often as we can, that we are proud of them -- not for their intelligence or their talents, but for their effort and for the good things they do for others -- and we should not be afraid to "spoil" them with this form of praise.