Repeated experiences of shaming are not good for a young child

The little boy, who looked to be about two, darted away in a fit of giggles. His young mother, who seemed thoroughly worn out and exasperated, ran after him, grabbed him by the arm and said in a harsh whisper, “You must stand here!”

We were on line waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight. For those of you not familiar with the Southwest system, there are no assigned seats. Rather, when a passenger obtains a boarding pass, a number indicates a place in line. Then before boarding, passengers line up according to the number they have been given. It is a very well organized system, but doesn’t necessarily work for a two-year-old.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened next. While I do not know anything about this mother-child pair, I have imagined many reasons why the situation unraveled as it did.

The above scene repeated itself two or three times. The mother had a companion, another young woman about her age, maybe a friend or her sister, who was fully absorbed with her phone for a few rounds of chasing before she looked up and said to the boy, “Do you want to watch a movie?” Immediately he stopped his darting and stood quietly looking at the phone, but the woman said, “You have to wait til we get on the plane.” He screamed and ran off again. This time he threw himself on the ground in the middle of the two lines of people (interestingly right at my feet-perhaps he sensed a sympathetic observer.) At which point his mother said in a loud voice, “If you don’t listen, all of these people are going to tell Santa you’ve been a bad boy!”

I was horrified, and might have even been tempted to intervene (probably not a good idea in the absence of frank abuse) but fortunately at that moment they began to board the plane.

So what went wrong? I start with the mother’s perspective. Likely she was experiencing a flood of shame and humiliation, as parents of young children do when they “act out” in public. On every radio interview I’ve had, I am asked about the dreaded “supermarket scene,” another place where a child must conform to the rules under the watchful eye of the general public.

The fact is that the “public eye” is generally either sympathetic or too involved in their own life to even notice. Yet shame pervades. In this situation it must have been particularly intense, as the mother passed this shame on to her son. She put the experience of humiliation directly in to him with her comment about Santa.

Next, I go on to the four aspects of holding a child in mind, as I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes.

The first is to be curious about the meaning of behavior. I wonder if this boy had some difficulties processing sensory input. As I mention in a previous post, a recent study showed that sensory over-responsiveness occurs in 25% of cases of problem behavior. An airport is a very difficult place for a child with sensory processing problems. Or perhaps he had just had a difficult separation- an event that may precede a trip on a plane. Or he may simply have been tired or hungry.

The second component is empathy. His mother, likely because of her own distress (see step four) was particularly unempathic, not recognizing how even in the absence of the above possible stressors, standing still can be a challenge for a two-year-old.

The third component is regulating and containing behavior. The little boy likely felt very stressed by this out of control situation. He needed help containing his experience. The mother’s companion was on the right track in offering the phone. He needed something that would help him to regulate himself. Reading a book, offering a movie or game, or even a snack, might have helped him to feel less out of control.

The last, and most difficult, is to manage your own distress. This mother might have been tired herself, might have been angry with her companion for being so unhelpful, or any countless number of feelings, in addition to the shame I describe above, that can get in the way of seeing things from your child’s perspective. When a person is flooded with stress, the higher centers of the brain responsible for rational thought do not work well. Had she been thinking more clearly, it might have occurred to her that her companion could hold the place in line. She could have let her son run around before being confined to the plane. Likely the other passengers would have been fine with that.

It’s a lot to think about for such a tiny moment. But it deserves this kind of attention, because repeated experiences of shaming are not good for a young child. Who says being a parent isn’t the hardest job there is?

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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  • John Ballard

    What a heartbreaking scene. During a forty year long career in the food business I got to see the public in all its variety and unfortunately scenes like the one you described are all too common. Most of my years were in a cafeteria environment serving one or two thousand meals daily. My layman’s observation is that children exhibit a range of behaviors depending on parental expectations. And the biggest problems occur from mixed signals, either when Mom and Dad don’t send the same message, or when public behavior is expected to be different from what is allowed at home. Some families allowed their children to go down the cafeteria line and make whatever selections they wanted, while others wanted to make corrections when a kid wanted french fries AND rice, or reached for a dessert that would be too much for an adult. Invariably the well behaved children were the ones who were left alone, and often they were the ones making more wholesome choices, I suspect because the parents did their coaching somewhere other than in public. 

    That old mixed signals problem is at the heart of many conflicts, from politics to public relations to employee relations and marital harmony. 

  • Med School Odyssey

    What’s really sad is that, while everyone can recognize this doesn’t help children, it still seems to be acceptable in the process of training medical students.

  • Betsy Murphy

    The child in question is obviously too young to do what his mother expects. Think about it: all he sees is a sea of legs, and all the adults are waiting for something he can’t see (or perhaps even imagine). The mother in question should consider getting one of those child leashes until he gets old enough to be able to deal with the situation.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post. Little kids do not take kindly to standing in line like sheep to the slaughter. Come prepared to provide the child with something to do while in line. The movie could have been on the smart phone and you can only watch it while we wait in line. Mother of 5

  • Donna Kinney

    OK, the mom was being silly, because you do NOT have to stand in line for Southwest flights.  They board by boarding pass number, so you can sit in your seat or do whatever you want until your group of numbers is boarding, then step into the boarding group.   BUT I think it is RIDICULOUS to claim that the mom has done permanent damage to the child by threatening to tell Santa, or by pointing out when other people might be annoyed by a child’s conduct. I would wager that the author has not raised children of her own.  As a Mom who has raised two wonderful successful kids, I am SHOCKED that you would judge this mom harshly.  NO Mom ever does everything the smartest possible way (and if you think you have, you are wrong).  I cannot imagine what a generation of brats we would raise if we were to never do or say anything that would make a child feel parental or public (or Santa’s) disappoval! 

    • l mcnally

      My parents would use shaming all the time with me when I was a child, until I was about 14 when became clear to me that any shame they felt was their own. It damaged me in many ways. One of the last things I told my father before he died, the one thing he did teach me, was how >not< to be a good parent. Harsh words for a harsh parent. Think about that just for a moment when you and your child have the kinds of incidents described. For the parent it's a moment, quickly forgotten. But for your child it is often a painful memory that can last a life time. It's the same thing as slapping your child around. At the end of your life, is this the way you want your children to remember you? I am the parent of two kids who take pride in their own accomplishments. I have never taken pride in my parenting. It is an extremely difficult task and I have made my share of errors. But shaming and slapping were never one of them.

      The more you restrain your kids to the small cage of your idea conformity, the more they will rebel. Give them space, and they will learn far more than fighting their restraints.

      • Donna Kinney

        I do understand that people’s childhood experiences affect how they understand parenting, and I also understand that every child may need to be parented differently. For BOTH of those reasons I think we need to be REALLY careful in how we judge other people’s parenting.  Both of my daughters are extremely successful in both their academic and personal lives.  One is also now a really terrific mom.  The oldest almost never needed to be asked twice to do anything and the youngest was a lot more like the little boy in the story.  The oldest would have been horrified at the idea that she was bothering other people, but I’m sure I pointed out to the youngest on multiple occasions that she was being very annoying.  She would LAUGH at the notion that it did her any permanent damage!  

  • ninguem

    On the 1 to 10 child abuse scale, I’d be hard-pressed to go past two on this scenario.

    Transportation security is a real annoyance with children. They keep trying to separate Mrs. Ninguem and me at screening. She gets stuck with small children to keep rounded up in security, and they’re about at the point in their standards where I wouldn’t be surprised they ask us to run the baby through the baggage X-ray. They’ll put me across the line at another machine.

    Ask to be kept near my family, they act like you’re Osama bin Laden.

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