It happened again. Yet another meme came cascading through the interwebz showing a parent publicly shaming their child for something they’d done wrong, and the likes and shares were stacking up by the tens and hundreds of thousands. The child in the picture was visibly humiliated, but all the while comments kept streaming in.
“Way to go!”
“That is awesome!”
“The world needs more parents like you!”
Perhaps most surprising (though maybe in retrospect it shouldn’t have been) was that much of the most enthusiastic support was coming from communities of faith. I think I even saw “God bless you” a couple of times in there.
We, as a community of faith, have so distorted our notion of love in the context of parent/child relationships that we have become enthusiastic endorsers of what essentially amounts to parental cyber-bullying.
I just don’t know how we got here.
Fresh off of my righteous indignation at being oh-so-right about the latest public humiliation fiasco, I got up early for our ritual Saturday-morning-pancake-and-bacon feast. Ethan, my oldest, was eager to help, as he always is. The dry ingredients were double-sifted, the wet ingredients mixed separately, the griddle warming up, all the while the baby munching on fruit while his big brother and I prepared for the main event. In his eagerness, Ethan volunteered to work the mixer, and as he’s done it a dozen times before, I acquiesced.
Then I turned my back. For the briefest of moments, I took my eyes off of him…and the baby.
And then there was a smack and a scream and the mixer was spinning and the baby was crying and the words came out before I even knew what I was saying.
“Ethan, what is wrong with you?!?”
I instantly regretted opening my mouth.
I saw those words land like blows on his precious little face as he stood on his chair, with the mixer in his hand still whirring and spitting batter everywhere, the hand that had just struck his brother frozen in the air. He knew that he had made a mistake, but that didn’t stop me from reminding him and driving the point further home like a knife in his gut.
His lip began to protrude in that all-too-familiar way. His shoulders hunched as he dropped the mixer into the bowl. He ran away, trying to put as much distance between us as he could. I tried to go to him, tried to make things better, tried to take back the shame that he felt from my words, but the damage had already been done.
“Daddy, you hurt my feelings.”
That’s what shame does. It hurts. It causes us to hide from each other, to cover ourselves from the other’s gaze. It puts distance between us. And whether we acknowledge it or not, it leaves scars.
Functionally speaking, it is the opposite of love.
We say things like, “I’m OK. My parents embarrassed me when I was a kid, and I turned out just fine.”
But are we? Did we?
When we’re in the middle of perpetuating the same cycle of shame with our own children that our parents, our pastors, our teachers, etc. visited on us, can we really say that we’re fine, or is it more likely that we might’ve turned a single verse in proverbs into a theology of discipline that is ultimately about power instead of love. Are we “OK,” or are we failing to see the intrinsic value in the Imago Dei imprinted on each and every one of our precious children, and seeing them instead ultimately as reflections of our own selves?
When we shame the children in our communities-whether they be our own kids, neighbors, church kids, school kids, etc-when we do so publicly, when we enthusiastically endorse these kinds of behaviors publicly, what is it that we are saying to these children about their value as members of our communities? What does it say to the world when, as a church, the language of our discipline is focused on making those with power feel justified about poor decisions rather than making those without power feel empowered to make better decisions?
Look, I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t know a lot about parenting. I’m faced with situations every day that I haven’t the slightest idea how to deal with. However, I feel like maybe I do know something about grace, because it has been heaped upon me in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. I know that there is only one accuser, and that it isn’t God. I know that if I’m looking for the voice of God in a particular situation, I can rule out the ones that are speaking shame and condemnation.
So as the priests and priestesses of our homes, what picture of God are we presenting to our children when we humiliate them and shame them? When we tell them to treat others the way that they want to be treated in one breath, and withhold grace and offer condemnation in the next, what message does that send? Should we be surprised when our kids are perhaps less graceful with us when we inevitably make a mistake?
There has to be something more than shame that defines the way we discipline our children.
There has to be a better way than this.