How childhood shame now informs my parenting

How childhood shame now informs my parenting

Cheng Lau

Hi parents. I’d like to talk honestly about shame and parenting. I understand if this is not for you, so feel free to skip reading this. Also, I’m sharing my own parenting learnings straight, with no insinuation or judgment. That’s my intent, and I hope it comes through.

Right, real talk. I hear the anxiety in recent posts on all my social media feeds, and I sense our feelings of guilt.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with shame researcher Brené Brown’s work, but her recent podcast addressing parenting and shame (Part 2, 1:09 to 25:03) spoke very strongly to me, and I hope you’ll get something out of it too.

She talks about the difference between guilt and shame — guilt being that discomfort we get when something clashes with our values, and shame being, in her words, “that feeling that washes over you, that makes you feel like you’re small and you’re not good enough, and that you’re not worthy of love, and connection, with your friends and your family.”

Here’s where the parenting bit comes in

As I find my feet as a parent, I’m sharply drawn back to traumatic moments in my childhood, where shame was the primary tool of discipline, sheathed as love. Even seeing the word ‘shame’ brings little prickles of sweat seeping out my hands. It’s a very visceral thing

I’ve felt it hardest in this pandemic, especially with my hyperactive six-year-old boy, during the first lockdown. Even my parents-in-law (who wrangled three wild woolly boys, and are the epitome of grace under fire) struggle with his chaos, noise and impulsivity, as he lives with them in this second lockdown.

I learn so much from him, and from parenting him. I continually learn that shame and punishment absolutely does not work with him. What does work is learning through play, hearing his emotions first, reminding him that I will be with him and love the crap out of him at his worst and his best, letting him calm down his own way, then having a discussion at his level.

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But who has the patience for that, especially now? Every time I yell at him, I feel the righteous high of releasing my anger first, then the surprise at myself, the sadness, then the guilt, because he doesn’t like getting yelled at and, frankly neither do I.

Then the shame creeps in a slow trickle. Those aforementioned sweat prickles. These days, I’m good at stopping myself before it spirals, and I sit him down, sigh, and apologise for yelling at him, and start again.

The change you want to see

Brené mentions in her podcast the importance of modeling the behaviour we want to see in our children. She acknowledges that it’s hard for us, for all of us, because how we first react as parents is based on how we were parented ourselves.

Like many of us, I’ve started seeing a psychologist in the pandemic. The therapy is teaching me to take a step back. Part of my homework is keeping a daily journal, and logging my reactions to my environment, four times a day, and my observations, and conscious decisions.

I won’t get a chance to practise fully on my six-year-old for a while, but I apply it with the two-year-old, who is a sweet delight, but is in the classic Terrible Twos phase. She had a 45-minute meltdown the other day, because she was overtired (my bad). I held her all the way, let her feel what she needed to, and express it the only way toddlers at that stage of language development know how, by crying and raging. My only purpose was to make sure she didn’t hurt herself or me. She settled down eventually, and slept peacefully for three hours straight (I would too, crying’s tiring).

And as I held her, I thought about how some of us had very different responses from our parents. Don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about. Now you’re just being silly. Stop being so difficult. Why don’t you just go to sleep? What’s wrong? What’s wrong with you? Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying? C’mon, I’ve got things to do. Stop being so dramatic. This is (therefore, you are) too much.

Just typing that hurt me. I don’t recall hearing any of this from my parents, but I had similar thoughts during my more sleep-deprived and frustrated nights, and I can imagine other parents feeling naturally overwhelmed, and thinking or saying these things in the moment, and regretting it later.

I openly admit to the healing value of being a parent to these two amazing (IMHO) kids. By parenting the way I wish I had been parented, I’m breaking the cycle of shame, and laying foundations for their future resilience.

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad – Philip Larkin

But I also recognise that my parents were doing the best they could with what emotional tools they’d inherited in their own traumatic childhoods (they grew up very poor in WWII Malaysia and Singapore). 

Shame is ultimately a tool of violence, and from what I hear, they bore the brunt of that tool frequently, literally, and figuratively. Along the way, they learned to cobble together tools of their own to survive, and later applied them to us. I find it hard to forget their actions, and how it still makes me feel, but I’m learning to forgive them, accept our faults, and love them, and myself, for it.

Growth in grief

I’m not saying that there’s one right way to parent, or one right way to feel about something, or there’s one right way to move forward. The growth comes in cycles; every time we feel that guilt, halt the shame, and process it, make amends, and move on. And also when we permit ourselves moments to grieve for that childhood, whatever it could’ve been.

All of this is to say that, y’know what, this is hard. Parenting is hard. A pandemic is hard. Home learning is hard. Juggling being an employee, parent, partner, sibling, son, daughter, teacher, member of our respective communities and so on, is hard.

So recognise that, and honour the effort you’ve put in to overcoming your past, learning from mistakes, and nurturing your children to be smart, kind and independent people.

We’re all doing our own version of best. And you can let your tiny, vulnerable past self know that you’re better now, even okay, and you’re doing your best to do what’s right by them.

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