when we shame our kids

August 14, 2012 | 22 Comments

ferris wheel at sundown

She clomped over to the Playland bench and dropped her body, arms crossed, head tucked. Fury rose in me.

This fury, I’ve learned, is a defence against the belief that her behaviour reflects on me. I did not raise her to act like this! Well, no, Shannon, you didn’t. NEWSFLASH, her brain works and she thinks for herself. And sometimes, kids are just kids.

My indignation keeps my tenderness at bay. How dare you.

I shuffled over to the bench and began my quiet lecture. “Emma, you’re going to get huffy over a plastic cup? Dad and I brought you to Playland; it’s the memories we’ll make being together today that count. I know you wanted the twisty cup, but dad doesn’t have enough cash and we can’t find a machine. Frankly, even if we could, your attitude has turned me off buying you one.”

“Okay. Fine.” She was begging me to stop without begging me to stop.

I wasn’t done, and Steve wasn’t within earshot to help loosen the noose around my neck. I pulled out my professional guilting tactics. “You have the attitude of a kid who has so much she resorts to hissyfitting over a plastic cup! Let’s save it for something really worthwhile, Em.”

“Okay. Mom. I get it.”

“I’m glad, but this really sucks. We were just laughing our heads off on a ride, having a great time, and now this.” Guilt, guilt guilt.

I could hear myself and I hated it. I dug deeper. “I’m sorry you’re disappointed. I know you were really excited about that cup. Let’s enjoy being with each other, okay?”

Silent nod. We left the bench and I could tell she was still sulking, less over the cup and more weighed down by shame. I tried to hold her unresponsive hand as a peace offering. I gave her a playful shove she ignored. I could taste the hurt on my tongue. It escaped in an angry disguise. “Emma, what?!”

“Nothing, Mom! I just didn’t feel like being pushed.”

Of course she didn’t. Would you be feel playful after being lectured in the middle of an amusement park? Let her feel what she’s feeling. Let her feel the futility, in the words of Dr. Gordon Neufeld. You feel the futility. Your lecture was alienating.

You’re teaching the way you were taught. You do that in a crunch. Stop it. Give. Her. Space. She’s a kid. Kids get disappointed over things like plastic cups. It doesn’t mean they’re ruined. She’s kind and thoughtful and so very happy. When is the last time she acted like this? You can’t remember, can you? Because she’s really a lovely child. You’ve explained why her reaction sucked, now drop it. 

I felt pouty. I wanted to stomp my feet and walk away saying, “It’s ruined. I’m done. This isn’t fun anymore.”

I trailed a few steps behind, summoning the adult inside.

Steve found a bank machine and motioned Emma and I over to the park map to choose the next ride while he withdrew money. I crouched down and grabbed Emma’s little hands in mine. “Hey, I’m sorry I got so frustrated. You’re a really amazing kid. It’s okay you felt disappointed about not getting a cup. I think I got frustrated, too, because I feel like I haven’t done a good enough job teaching you about gratitude. You have a really charmed life; we all do. Sometimes that’s easy to forget. Today is about being together, and I almost ruined it with my crummy reaction to your crummy reaction. I love you and I think you’re wonderful. Let’s hit the reset button, okay?”

I get these moments right more often than I blow them, but I do wonder how many chances I get before doing irreversible damage. Emma has been so resilient and forgiving to date. That won’t last forever. My relationship with her as a teenager haunts me when I react poorly, when I feel her pull away from me emotionally. I worry we won’t survive those years, the way my mom and I didn’t.

It’s scary, this business of raising a child. A person your heart beats for. I can’t imagine surviving the pain of losing her to my inability to do better.


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