Last night I told my daughters, "You should be ashamed of yourselves."
I know modern parenting has it that we should never let our kids feel badly, especially about themselves, but the truth was...by our family's morals and ethics my kids should have felt badly about what they did and about themselves.
We had just returned home from a short four-day holiday visiting my mother. A couple of those days I was at the South by Southwest Conference, and to cover my absence -- which nobody seemed to notice much, a good thing -- the family went on the Fun Run: lake, picnic, boating, kite flying, park, and more. It was days of outdoors and good times, which the kids loved.
After an easy and speedy drive, we arrived home shortly before dinner, and that's when the kids launched into bickering and insults that escalated into vicious behavior. My husband and I both tried several times to redirect, direct, intervene, and every other parenting measure in our arsenal, to no avail. I tried getting them to access their emotions, and talk about those instead of fighting and being cruel. I tried to think about their ages. I tried to consider that this was a big transition. I tried to keep in mind likely fatigue. I extended empathy and positive, constructive suggestions to problem solve. I tried leaving them alone. In short, I tried it all. My husband, too.
When they began the kicking and hitting, that was the end of our tolerance.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," I told them. I explained how I understood that they felt badly, were angry, "But that's never a reason to be cruel and hurtful, especially violent."
I reminded them that when they felt temper flare they needed to try counting, try taking a break, ask a parent for guidance, or any of the other measures I've taught my quick-tempered children of a long line of redheads.
"You can tell someone you are angry, and you can feel angry, but you cannot, I repeat, cannot, be mean and hurtful on purpose, you will regret it, and then? Then you will feel really, really ashamed," I said.
You may disagree with my parenting. You may think I'm wrong, but deep inside, I'm pretty convinced I am right. I think I'm right to teach my kids to pay attention to the shame they feel inside and use it to stop themselves. I want them to learn to listen to their internal guides and use them to make good choices in life.
At some point, it seems that we all got this idea that we deserve to be happy, that we are entitled to feel good, and that it's our right to pursue our passion. All the time.
I don't think anyone wakes up and thinks, 'Today is a good day to have a bad day." I don't think anyone is at kindergarten graduation and says, "I want to be a (insert job that must be done but you don't generally aspire to) (like...lowly paid writer or porta-potty cleaner)..."
It just doesn't always turn out the way we planned. Sometimes life -- and our own emotions -- get away from us.
I don't know about you, but I'm okay with the fact that life sucks sometimes. That doesn't mean I enjoy it, it just means I understand that not everything gets to be ideal all the time. It means I know sometimes bad things happen to good people. It means I know I'm going to have to deal with and process bad feelings, such as anger, grief, frustration, and...shame.
Shame gets abused, for sure. We feel shame when we really needn't, and ashamed when we really shouldn't.
Someone pulls a mean girl on you and you take it to heart, think there's something wrong with you, feel ashamed. You try something and it doesn't work out very well, you feel a crushing sense of failure, feel shame. You wake up one day and it seems that while everything is going right for everyone else, it's all going wrong for you, and you flush with shame.
If we let it be a reaction and move past it quickly, work to better the cause, that's one thing. But too often we let this shame define us.
That concerns me, but what concerns me more is this full throttle attempt we so often make to never feel ashamed. "Don't let it get to you," we hear. "Don't be so intense," we're told. "Let it go," we're advised.
At some point, it starts feeling as if...we're asked to not feel, or not feel very much at all. At some point, it feels as if...our fellow humans want us to be automatons.
Maybe I'm missing the point but in general it seems we often have trouble with strong emotion, especially strong bad emotion. I'm here to argue in favor of the very worst of all strong bad emotions: shame.
Shame is a guide. When we use it and tap into it correctly, it reminds us of our moral compass. We should feel shame when we do something hurtful or wrong by our own ethics and morals. It's a touchpoint.
We're so good teaching ourselves to "get over" bad emotions that we can often focus too much on the "get thee behind me, bad feeling" and miss its purpose. When we exercise and a muscle hurts, that's our body telling us something. When we feel and it hurts, that's our mind telling us something. It's telling us that we hurt ourselves. We betrayed something crucial to our core being.
If we teach children to pay attention and understand this bad feeling guide, I think we teach them to be more compassionate both to themselves and to others.
After I told my girls to pay attention to that bad feeling and overcome it rather than feeding it, we hugged, and passed a pleasant rest of the evening. My older daughter even read a story to her little sister.
We don't need to get over bad feelings, we need to get through them. That's how we come out the other side not just feeling better, but being better.