Advanced Parenting: the Shame Shift

Confessions of a not-so-secret nerd: I've always loved school. Fresh notebooks? An excuse to buy pens? Life was great with a book bag and studying and learning new things every day. Even now I see my friends from Grad school on Facebook heading back for PhDs, and...I know, I shouldn't admit it, but I do--I feel a twinge of jealousy!

Funny I didn't have that same reaction when our counselor said we were incredibly blessed to have a child who would help us go beyond 'Parenting 101' into 'Advanced Parenting'. I was quite content being a 'good-enough-parent' know the kind? Nothing stupendous or miraculous, making my share of mistakes and learning as I go, but well-intentioned and full of love and always providing basic needs. No one is perfect; good enough seemed a reasonable goal.

Except that I forgot one thing. Being full of love and communicating love are two different things. There's this pesky little thing in communication called the other person! Drat!!!

See, I thought I understood about shame and kids. Remember...good enough! I wasn't saying, "You're a rotten kid!" "Why can't you do anything right?" "Why can't you be like..." or "What's wrong with you?" Ok, that last one might have slipped out once or twice, but I knew it was wrong and I felt terrible, and that's part of what led us to realize that good enough wasn't good enough anymore!

What I was saying most days was, "Because you made that very poor decision, you've lost the ipad for today" or "Because you just deliberately disobeyed my instructions you'll have to go to bed early" or sometimes just, "Arrrrrggggggg! What is going ON with you????" It was all a combination of honest bewilderment and what I thought was clear communication of consequences. I swear it was in that Basic Parenting 101 text they don't give us new parents upon discharge!

What we didn't know was that our son was hearing only one real word in all of it..."you" along with sensing the mounting frustration and stress in all the unspoken communication.

We really had to come to grips with the difference between guilt and shame. I had never pondered that one, to be honest. Seemed like semantics. But guilt is good--guilt says, "I've done something wrong" and it leads to repentance and reparation. Shame says "I am bad" and what's a little boy to do to fix that?

Even now I tear up at the thought of what that must have felt like to him; the hopelessness of feeling innately bad. It certainly didn't lead him to making "healthier decisions," which frustrated us, which heaped up more burning shame upon his head. You get the picture.

And yet he makes some really poor decisions--ones a good parent can't ignore. For weeks we felt trapped in no-man's land between loosing all the 101 tools and yet not really understanding Advanced Parenting-ese.

But slowly, I was able to get my head around what the counselor and the books meant when they talked about looking for the meaning behind the behavior. So now I try to say, "Wow. That ipad has really made you hyper! To help you make better choices, I'm going to put it away for the rest of the day." Or "Yikes--watching a movie right before bedtime makes it really hard for your brain and body to settle down. Since sleep is so important for you, I'm going to make sure you get enough sleep by not having us watch movies before bed again." Because I'm the parent and I'm going to make the hard choices that he doesn't have the maturity to make. Not as punishment, but in love, because that's what he needs.

When I'm really in a good place, I can say, "Hmmm. You're flat-out refusing to do homework. You must be really scared or overwhelmed about something," because why else would a smart kid refuse to do 5 math problems????

When he forgets the family rules and climbs on the coffee table and jumps to the couch and back while watching Spiderman...yes, he's breaking my rules AGAIN. And yes, I've told him a million times. And yes, it drives me crazy and I feel ignored and disrespected. But I'm working to see that his disobedience and hyperactivity is a symptom, not the disease. He's reacting to the stress and excitement of the movie, and Spiderman literally makes him climb the walls!

I try to focus on being tuned in to what is triggering the behaviors or the bad choices, and addressing that rather than punishing him. Half the time he's only fractionally aware of what he's just done anyway! So we talk about how his brain makes him do impulsive things sometimes--not to remove his guilt. Never to disregard his responsibility. No--to remove his shame, so that he's empowered to know that he CAN do something to control it. To give him hope for growth and maturity.

And slowly by slowly, it's working. It hasn't stopped the behaviors necessarily, but it gives us the language to talk about them in a way for him to take ownership of them rather than recoil in powerlessness.

We're not ready to teach the course on Advanced Parenting by any means. And I'm a little slow up on the uptake, clearly, since we have FOUR children, and I've been a parent for THIRTEEN years and I'm only just now realizing how severely I'm getting my butt kicked. I mean, I knew parenting was hard. But it's H.A.R.D. Like--days where I would push the panic button and get off the ride if I could-hard.

I won't wax poetic about how it's worth it in the end. I don't doubt it will be, someday, and those who have gone before me and survived confirm that it is. But it's not enough for me in the trenches of today. It seems too far away to push through today based on the hopes for mature and well-adjusted adult children. But what I can fight for here and now and every day, in the battle for my children's hearts, is love.

Love that is not just communicated by me, but is felt by them. Because "there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1John 4:17-18.



  1. I love you and you are a fantastic parent. So proud of you for putting in tne effort to learn how to love each child God has given you. It's a rare thing in today's world. What an inspiration.

  2. This is absolutely beautiful, Miriam. Thanks for sharing it. We're in great need of 'Advanced Parenting' skills these days, too. Like you, 13 years into it, one would think we'd have the hang of it by now! Lord, have mercy.

  3. Lord have mercy, indeed!!! Thanks for your kind words, both of you!


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