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Monday 27 January 2020
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A healthy dose of shame

THERE ARE many parents who think good parenting means anesthetising their children. They want to numb their children from the pain of life. They don’t want their children to scrape their knees or make any mistakes – like that is even possible. These are the parents who buy their children’s place in university as we noted recently when two actresses and a pack of parents paid someone to cheat for their children on college entrance exams and then paid off universities to accept those students on fake sports scholarships.

Lori Laughlin, the sweet-faced wife from Full House and face of goodness in Hallmark films, and Felicity Huffman, the whiny desperate housewife married in real life to William H Macy, are now the faces of those money-wielding parents who failed to see that not allowing their children to go through the real process of entering college is actually robbing them of worthwhile life experiences.

I hope you are watching this story unfold because it has invaluable lessons for every parent – not just those who have an obscene amount of money to buy their children’s way into college. What we are seeing is an epidemic of overprotective parents who try to shield their children from anything negative or difficult in this world.

Much of what I am trying to convey here is written in a fascinating book with a jolting message called Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem by Joseph Burgo. I thought this would be the book for me to discover why I have always been such a guilt-ridden person.

The book was not what I expected. The author, a psychiatrist, took the opportunity to convey his feelings that most of us are not walking around feeling enough guilt. Of course, we’re not supposed to buy guilt wholesale. We’re not supposed to plummet to the depths of despair when someone guilts us unfairly or when someone uses guilt as a means of control to inflate their own warped sense of self.

Shaming people into guilt for hurtful reasons is wrong, but it does occur. The trick, Burgo says, is to recognise and recover from it as soon as possible. But this is only half the story of Burgo’s book.

More importantly, he says a good, healthy dose of shame is important for children to grown. He argues guilt is missing in too many people’s lives. Somewhere along the way, parents decided that children should only experience good feelings. They put pressure on schools to only give glowing reports. Every negative observation must be reworked to sound positive. Parents praise children for unpraiseworthy behaviour.

Students are no longer supposed to feel shame for not turning in their homework, not paying attention in school or being disruptive and disrespectful to others. Instead, the adults around them are supposed to rework the environment around children and coach them with praise – even when they do negative or irresponsible things.

This, Burgo says, is dangerous because it does not prepare children for real life. Teachers may be asked not to give 0s to students who don’t turn in homework or they may be asked to dummy down tests so children don’t feel like failures, but when these children become adults and enter the real world where they can’t meet their deadlines, they will face unexpected problems.

If they have reports to write and they are sent back endless times for revisions because those reports don’t demonstrate the necessary effort or meet the required standards, these employees will likely become depressed because they have had no experience in dealing with issues that should generate authentic, soul-searching, character-building shame.

A healthy dose of shame, Burgo says, is an essential ingredient in learning how to be happy. It is a tool to refine our personalities and our goals. If you only receive praise and you only have over-protective parents who try to ward off all negativity in your life, then you don’t get to experience the joy that comes from working your way through problems and dealing with difficulties caused by shame.

I feel sorry for the children in this college-cheating scandal. They are the extreme version of what Burgo is talking about, and where do they go from here? Their reputations have been tainted forever. They are the over-indulged, rich children who have been robbed of having the heady experience of finding their own way in the world, and I can only imagine how they are dealing with shame.

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