Shame can be used as well as abused, writes Julia Steiny
Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming. . . . when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires. Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester. Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.
Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist. Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort. But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized. They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.
Learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family, says Australian criminologist John Braithwaite. “Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.” Children learn to control their impulses.
Parents who rely on humiliation to force the behavior they want tend to raise delinquents, he says. The “parents do all the work of controlling behavior.”
“Shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil,” Steiny concludes.