Is it Damaging to Call Your Kid “Bad”?

When one of my friends is upset with her child she say’s “You’re such a bad girl” or “That was a shameful thing you did”.  Is this an effective way to discipline your kid?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): Generally speaking, teaching children through the use of shame has been going on for generations. We have to differentiate between shame and embarrassment.

Embarrassment is something we all experience from time to time: we say something that’s not smart or we get mixed up on our information, and that’s a normal thing people go through all their lives. We get embarrassed by something we’ve done.

Shame is a much deeper issue – it goes right to the soul of the person.

MOLLY: Is there any time you should use shame to discipline your kid?


MOLLY: So saying, “What a bad person you are,” when your child does something wrong, isn’t something you should be doing?

DR. RUTHERFORD: That should be avoided at all costs. Or doing something that makes the child feel ashamed. For example, suppose the child cries a lot for whatever reason. And the mother makes the kid feel a great sense of shame about it.  “How could you cry like that” “You’re just a little baby!” (and the tone of voice is important, too, of course)… Well, that child will shut down – inside, emotionally. And it will in a sense paralyze the child if enough of that goes on.

Or, if you put your kid in the corner, facing the corner. I’ve seen people do that and it’s kinda horrible. The child feels so much shame over whatever the incident. When the kid grows up… You see this all the time, when people experience shame, they may become very withdrawn, or conversely, they can verbally attack another person as a way to get rid of the “bad” feelings inside. Both reactions can lead to difficult interpersonal relationships, and the person probably has no idea why he does the things he does.

MOLLY: What would you see in an adult that was shamed by their parents as a kid? What kind of person are you as a parent going to create using these types of shame tactics?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think you’re going to create somebody on either end of the spectrum.  Possibly an adult who is withdrawn, very careful what they say, measured in their words with a great fear of being spontaneous. It cuts down on their creativity because they are afraid of making mistakes. They don’t ever want to feel that sense of shame again. Which is really, a pretty terrible feeling.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can see especially in boys but you can see it in girls, too, a lot of aggression.  You can see this aggression especially when they feel like they’ve done something wrong or are experiencing a sense of shame. And of course people experience shame from time to time when they’re adults for all kind of reasons. Someone might say you made a mistake at work, or you didn’t do something right, or you said something stupid… That’s when you see a lot of defensive aggression directed at the people closest to them.

MOLLY: Defensive aggression? What does that look like?

DR. RUTHERFORD:  The sense of shame will be triggered off inside you. See, it’s always sitting inside of you – like a virus – and the person constantly feels that they have to defend themselves against that sense of shame. They don’t want to experience the shame so they verbally attack the person whom they feel is causing it, or even just witnessed it. They never really connect it up in any conscious way about what’s going on inside of them, and they don’t learn from it.  They verbally (or physically) attack the person who is making them feel the shame as a way of ridding themselves of the bad feeling.

MOLLY: So for instance, in a marriage, they might be abusive to their wife?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, it’s very common. It’s perplexing to the spouse because they don’t understand where all this aggression is coming from. It’s not a healthy way to resolve problems.

MOLLY: So using shame creates a lot of issues now and later.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes it creates a lot of issues that never get resolved. Instead of shame, you would want to use positive reinforcement.

MOLLY: How would you change it from saying, “You’re such a bad girl for throwing food on the floor or spilling your milk?”

DR. RUTHERFORD: You could say, “We’re having a few problems here in our family and some of the problems we’re having are X, Y or Z. So let’s see if we can make this better for you and the whole family.” It depends on the age of the child, but certainly you’d want to do this when the child is verbal which is usually around two-and-a-half years. You would want to engage the child and make a sticker or star chart (more on that to come in a future posting).

MOLLY: Instead of shaming her, figure out how you can address that behavior by rewarding her for good behavior instead of punishing her for bad behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, you can do this by creating a sticker or star chart with rewards for good behavior, or by withholding privileges of something they like as an incentive for changing behavior. For example television time or desert.

MOLLY: So instead of saying you’re such a bad girl for throwing your food on the floor, you can say “You know that’s not okay in our house. The next time you do that you’re going to lose your TV privileges for a day.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes… You could say that. But you could also say something like, “How do you think we can solve this problem together so that you are not throwing your food on the floor?” It’s very interesting to watch kids come up with their own ideas about solving problems.

Or, if your kid keeps spilling their milk, the parent could say, “What if we put your cup of milk in a different place on the table so that you’re less likely to spill it?” or “Maybe we should use a top on our cup so it won’t spill?” This can be a very practical tool for resolving problems.

So, it has multiple good impacts on the kid. One is that the kid isn’t shamed if they throw or spill food on the floor.  Two is that they’re learning a way to resolve a particular problem while at the same time they’re learning a process of resolving a problem. This can be a very long process for a child.

For instance, when your 4-year old daughter spilled her milk during her visit here, we talked about a “safe zone” for her cup on the counter. I noticed that afterward she mentioned it every time, at every meal. This is a good example of problem solving for a young child.

MOLLY: And this is something they can use for the rest of their lives?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, they will use it for the rest of their lives. The process will stay with them. It’s a wonderful skill to have for all kinds of circumstances when you’re an adult. It’s not just the content of what you’re teaching the kid, but the process.

MOLLY: How you’re addressing the problem?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. They’ll begin to think like that and be able to resolve problems in a more positive way as they get older. For instance, there was a wonderful example in the television show “Mad Men,” when the mother of Don Draper’s children (Betty) used shame a lot as a way to discipline her children. You could see the emotional distance between the kids and their mother.

Later in the show there was a scene with the Dad and his new girlfriend (Megan) at a restaurant where one of the kids spills milk on the table. The father and the daughter looked at each other apprehensively, ready for an angry response from the girlfriend. Instead Megan said something like, “This kind of stuff happens all the time. No big deal, we’ll wipe it up.” The father and daughter looked at each other with amazement. There was no shaming but instead there was a practical solution to resolve the problem.

It was a striking example of different ways of parenting and of not using shame as a parenting method.




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