When I was about 12 years old, I sat in my kitchen eating raw, frozen cookie dough out of a tub watching Dateline. (Dateline is still one of my favorite shows and I don’t care who judges me. I love justice.) They were discussing this new-age way of parenting wherein instead of punishing a child for hurting another child, you show the offender how it has made the other one feel. The episode showed an older sister whacking the younger one with a plastic bat. As the younger sister cried, the mother held her. The older sister looked on, waiting for her punishment to begin. But instead, the mother brought the two sisters together and asked the older, “Look at the way your sister feels because you hit her. It hurt her, and it probably scared her, too.” The little girl stared at her sister, processing all the feelings. Eventually, she put her arm around her sister and sheepishly told her she was sorry without prompting.
The method for changing behavior was called “empathy”.
I remember sitting there thinking, “This isn’t all that ground-breaking. It seems like common sense.” Almost 20 years later I’m realizing just how little common sense there is in the world, especially when you’re an exhausted, overworked, under-appreciated mother.
Brene Brown recalls a time in her early career when a psychologist she worked with told her, “You can’t change behavior using shame.” Shame is not embarrassment or guilt; those are emotions we feel about something we did. Shame is about who we are.
Guilt: Hitting your sister was a hurtful choice, and it hurt her feelings.
Shame: You make bad choices. You are a hurtful sister.
We often (unknowingly) shame our children in an attempt to change their behavior. We make them feel badly about themselves after something they’ve done wrong. What this teaches our children is to avoid getting shamed again; not to avoid the behavior itself. This leads to lying, manipulative behaviors, and cheating. And let’s be honest, in the heat of the moment it’s way easier for me to look at my son and ask, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT? YOU ARE BEING MEAN TO THE DOGS,” and then smack his hand away from their poor, tired, floppy, abused ears. And I’ve done that before. And when I do (and when I can bear to look at him afterward), Abe looks at me like I’ve just criticized his very soul.
We also shame each other. We shame partners, we shame friends, we shame complete strangers. Instead of addressing a behavior without emotional and reactionary attitudes, we attack a person. What do you say to someone who cuts you off in traffic? “You crazy bitch.” You don’t say, “You just made a dumb choice.” We attack people, not behaviors.
Empathy is not in our DNA. It’s another skill that we have to practice. It can be extremely difficult to practice once you’ve spent years building up a reaction to those close to you. (“He never remembers…”) So start with those who are on your periphery.
Start with the truck driver who cuts you off.
Either he didn’t see me or no one ever lets him in so he felt like he had to cut me off. He wouldn’t do that if he knew how much it scares me.
Start with the Starbucks employee.
I wonder if this is her first job. I remember my first job at Olive Garden when I used to mess up orders and it got me so flustered.
Start with the mom in MyGym.
I’ll bet she is feeling really self-conscious about how her child is acting in front of all of us.
Practice empathy instead of shame today.
…to be continued…