Willing to Try - Learning
Without Fear of Shame
By Wendy Priesnitz
One of things I experienced as a child – and one
of the main things that I wanted to spare my daughters – was the shaming
and humiliation that went on at both school and home. I often watched its
numbing effect on my friends, but even as a shy A-student, it was sometimes
directed at me for various awkward stumblings or my inability to carry a
tune or solve arithmetic problems on demand while standing in the aisle
beside my desk. Perhaps my good marks and general acquiescent behavior sometimes
actually caused the humiliation because I remember being told by teachers
and parents alike, in tones dripping with digust, “You’re just not trying
hard enough.” Sometimes it was subtle – or maybe even unintentional – but
often it was clearly overt belittling. It wasn’t just adults who did it;
other children picked up on the tactic as a model and used it to bully other
kids, long before “bullying” had a name. Other times, it was just fallout
from school’s competitive climate and my parents’ overwrought expectations
of an only child born late in their lives.
Dr. Brené Brown (author of The Gifts of Imperfection
and Daring Greatly, among other books, and presenter of The
Power of Vulnerability, one of the most-watched TED talks ever) has
been researching the subject of shame for many years. In a March, 2013 interview
with Oprah Winfrey, she warned parents about the prevalence of shame in
children’s lives. In fact, she called it schools’ “number one classroom
management tool.” What might start out as humiliation or guilt about having
done something “bad” can eventually convince the child that not just her
behavior is bad, but that she, herself, is bad. Or a child with already
low self-esteem can move right to feeling shame.
I don’t think the teachers – and other adults in
my life who used shaming and humiliation to create the behavior they wanted
to see in me, like my parents – saw anything wrong with this lack of respect
for children or their assaults on our dignity. In fact, they may have thought
it was necessary. Nevertheless, and aside from the obvious self-esteem issues,
repeated humiliation and shaming result in children who are conditioned
to recognize their limits; it teaches them what they can’t do.
It results in children who aren’t confident enough learners to try new things,
to take risks, to be brave explorers rather than passive consumers of information.
So we are giving our life learning children a gift
when we avoid shaming them regarding their “mistakes” or “failures.” They
can remain willing to try, which is, after all, a major part of their first
learning adventures. Their curiosity and urge to learn isn’t conflicted
by fear of failing. So they boldly explore and question as a way of learning
about the world. They are free to develop what Brown calls shame resilience,
which is the key to developing a sense of worth. They learn for the sake
of knowing, rather than to please someone else or to avoid being shamed.
And, because they have avoided learning that they are what they accomplish,
they escape the trap of perfectionism, which is about trying to earn approval
instead of shame. They are willing to try without fear of being wrong.
Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor.
She has been a life learning advocate for over forty years and is the author
of thirteen books, including
Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist, School Free, and Challenging
Assumptions in Education, and editor of others, including
Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational
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