There Has To Be A Better Way.

by Luke



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.


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23 Responses to “There Has To Be A Better Way.”

  1. Lee H February 13, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Luke….what you speak to here is way more important than any other issue in the news today. If we could redeem ourselves in this department we would not need to talk about gun control or many of society’s other ills…

    Kids are NOT fine in the ways we are not connecting with them and being attuned to what they need…then they pass that legacy on to their kids.

    Thank you for this great piece…

    • Luke February 13, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      Thanks, Lee. I think you’re right, kids aren’t fine, and I don’t think that we the parents are really fine either. We’ve all been damaged somehow in this cycle of shame, but the really insidious thing about shaming is that we internalize it. I think we don’t speak up about how it is harmful because we’ve bought into the lie that it was, in some twisted way, good for us.

  2. Jessica February 13, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    I had a record two such incidences yesterday. Yeah. Sometimes my beliefs don’t line up with my practices. In parenting or faith.

    • Luke February 13, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      I literally had one *as I was writing this.* It’s hard work for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that for many of us raised in conservative faith traditions, shaming is an unfortunately integral part of our often unhealthy relationship with a God Who has been utterly misrepresented to us. And this is the kind of hard work we can’t do on our own. It takes building communities of people who believe that love is more transformational than condemnation and who are willing to live it out.

      To be frank, I’m still not sure I totally believe that, or ate least I act like I don’t.

      • Jessica February 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

        Oh, want to see me be the crappy parent? Watch me sit down to work on the second edition of my parenting book. Never fails.

  3. Esther Emery February 13, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    I’m concerned about this, too. We’ve been doing it since we put debtors in the stocks, or before that, even. I’m concerned that it encourages a mob mentality, and also teaches kids that bad choices = unloved people.

    But you can’t fix it in ten words or less, that’s for sure. I shame my kids all the time, especially when I’m exposed or insecure myself, usually try to back up and fix it, but sometimes probably don’t even notice.

    Don’t not write about things like this, okay? Even if it is hard for us to respond. It’s important.

    • Luke February 13, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      “I shame my kids all the time, especially when I’m exposed or insecure myself…”

      I think that this is a really important point. We were shamed, and we subsequently internalized those behaviors, so much so that they’ve become an almost automatic response when we interact with our kids in difficult situations. Like you said, sometimes we don’t even see it, I think recognizing it is an important first step. And we can’t be afraid to talk about it, and to talk about what it means to break the cycle of shame with our kiddos.

  4. HopefulLeigh February 13, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    This is a good word, Luke. I couldn’t figure out why those memes didn’t sit well with me until reading this.

    • Luke February 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      A couple of years ago (namely, while Ethan was still a blob whose only emotions were tired, hungry and dirty) they wouldn’t have bothered me. But Ethan, much like his dad, is a sensitive kid with a strong sense of justice, even if that sense of justice is fairly self-serving at his age. :)

      When I started to see the kind of damage that my words could do to him, it honestly flipped my world around. All of the sudden I was identifying with the kids in the pictures instead of the parents and it really changed the way I thought about parenting. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s still a struggle, but my hope is that when all is said and done, he’ll see that I tried my best to love him the best way I knew how and give *me* grace for all the mistakes I made.

  5. Sarah Bessey February 13, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    One of the biggest changes in my life was when I decided to parent my children the way that I believe God parents me. How we parent says a lot about our beliefs about God.

    • Luke February 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

      Thomas Paine said “…belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” If we, as parents, are the first proxies for God that our children see, and if the nature of our relationship revolves around power, shame, and condemnation, I can’t help but wonder, what scars will that leave on impressionable little minds?

    • Connie February 16, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

      I can tell you what scars it will leave–well, to be fair, what scars such treatment has left on me: for the majority of my life, never feeling good enough; having to manufacture a belief in my worth instead of that being my foundation; living with nagging fears that I have done or will do something (even unknowingly) that will piss off a friend (or–a man) who will then no longer want to be my friend (or partner). Shall I go on?

  6. beth@redandhoney February 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    I love this. I too try to parent my kids as God parents me. Boy, do I ever suck at it sometimes. That could be a whole ‘nother deeper story… the shame of parenting fails. Ideally though, I agree wholeheartedly. I have never been so thankful for God’s grace as I am now that I am a parent.

    • Luke February 14, 2013 at 7:01 am #

      Thanks for your honesty, Beth, and you’re not alone. We *ALL* suck at it sometimes, but we keep trying to be better, to parent our kids, as Sarah said, the way God parents us, firm when necessarry, but always drenched in grace.

  7. Ben February 13, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I struggle mightily with shaming my kids (and they’re so young, little). I’ve had conversations with my older daughter and try to explain that my behavior is not OK and is a sign that something is off with me, not her. That part is the better part of the struggle.
    I pray and ask for prayer to care more gently for my children.
    Thanks for this post, Luke.

    • Luke February 15, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Thanks for you vulnerability here, Ben. My boys are still little too, and yet I struggle just the same with defaulting to shame in discipline. I’ve found that as I have more frank conversations with my oldest (who’s a precocious almost-4-year-old), the more empowered he feels to express himself when I do miss the mark. It’s often the absolute last thing that I *want* to hear from him, but it’s probably the thing I *need* to hear most, and his letting me know that I hurt his feelings was actually, I think,
      a product of that dialogue.

      Also, do you think that there are some cultural barriers for dads in this area? I’m certainly not downplaying, at all, the difficulties for mom’s in dealing with these types of issues, but I’m thinking specifically of the kind of tough-guy, cultural machismo that creates particular expectations for dads. Humility, tenderness, and gentleness are often portrayed and perceived as weakness for dads, and I think it distorts our notions of what dads shoudl be and how they should act, especially in terms of discipline.

      I’ll pray with you, and ask that you would do the same for me, that we may model for our kiddos the same grace that’s been shown to us.

  8. Lalania February 15, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Great post! I don’t want to be one of those parents who shame their kids as a form of discipline. I just read two great books on this topic and will definitely be rereading them over and over: Loving our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk and Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham.

    • Al February 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

      I think I agree, but I’m not sure you define what you mean by shaming. Or that I understand what you mean by shaming. Could you expand?

  9. Connie February 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    I’m not a parent, but I’ve been parented–by ones who should have shown me grace the most but instead shamed me when I failed to live up to their standard (ahem: perfection). Is it any wonder I have “God issues”? To say this resonates with me would be an understatement.

  10. Connie February 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    I no more had closed this window than twitter told me about this post: How Gentleness Makes Our Children Great, at (in)courage: Though the site is clearly aimed at women, it would seem that the ideas it contains for small, practical ways to begin to be gentle…would apply to either parent.

  11. Kim Murden February 20, 2013 at 1:41 am #

    My husband and I learnt long, hard and arduous how to speak to our kids without shaming them. We did some damage in the early days , which we have cleared up and are clearing up (it breaks hearts) The other day I had to speak sternly to son number three and I realised how long it was since we had told any of the children off at. That’s four children 10-19 years in a family where words are not used to hurt and control very often, that was hard won.
    You do a good thing when you write with honesty on this subject to help us all along the way. Blessings


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