These are my recent thoughts on moving away from shame-based parenting instruction. I'm in the process of wandering away from the language of judgement - objective(ly framed social) judgement and my personal judgement of them. Feelings are just feelings, they just are what they are, and there's nothing useful or helpful about judging them. I like "helpful or unhelpful" and "useful or not useful" when talking about behaviors that they choose in response to emotions, and I like those words because they're framed from the kid's perspective. They focus on the kid's goals, and support direct teaching on understanding social consequences and on building empathy (which requires modeling other people, which is a cognitive developmental skill) by learning how their impact on other people is going to affect their goal.

One nearby alternative I'm not a fan of is "inappropriate" - it invites a "social norms are objective reality" frame. That word can still be true with respect to social acceptance - other people will in fact judge them for how they behave. (I'm always trying to separate felt experience from behavior.) I'm trying to be aware, myself, of only using it in regards to other people's (potentially cruel) judgement and not framing it as if there is an absolute moral right/wrong standard for emotion-driven behavior. Another reason I don't feel great bringing that one out is that it's pretty close to shaming, just indirectly. "What will other people think" reminds me of "They're all going to laugh at you!" (cue terrible Adam Sandler skit I was exposed to in a teenage boys summer camp cabin)

Some of my go-to phrases currently regarding boundary/transgressive behavior are:

  • "You can feel your <emotion> without doing <hurtful behavior>."
  • "<behavior> is a backfiring (we've defined this in my house, could be "counterproductive" or even (instrumentally) "bad") strategy - if you want <outcome> this will get you the opposite."
  • "Please notice your <emotion> right now, and remember that you also want to be <safe/kind/respectful/a friend>"

My 5 year old is just now getting proficient at basic consequences, and is still pretty frustrated that they exist. Looking back at ages 3-4, for all of my kids, I wouldn't want to not teach consequences, but if I could do it over again I would do less lecturing about how they "should" have understood consequences. They just can't do that reasoning at that age when they're emotionally flooded. Also I'd use more redirection/distraction, despite it seeming like a trick sometimes, and less "consequences as current behavior incentive".

The above was hastily written and this is such a tough area still, I'm sure I'll gain more insights later and be ready to perfectly parent as soon as I'm done parenting. 😂 This is hard - we've got big generational improvements to make as a whole society, as we gain enough emotional wisdom to counter past norms. I hope that when my kids raise their kids, they'll have less to unlearn by then!