I had learned to read at the age of five but that didn’t mean I knew how to read every word. So there I was trying to sound out the word second. Sec-OND. What is a sec-OND?
It was only one dumb word and yet I remember that moment so distinctly. My grandfather was with me that day and he reacted as though I was a complete idiot. I don’t remember the precise words he used, but I do remember that he kept telling me I was wrong and making me keep reading the word over and over. I kept saying it as though it rhymed with beyond — secOND — because that’s how it looked to me and that’s all I could come up with, and he kept responding that I was wrong, wrong, WRONG. How could I possibly not know what the word was? Wasn’t it obvious?!
Someone on Facebook recently asked the question, “What’s the worst thing parents can do to their children?” and I said, “Shame them.” Shaming can have a lifelong impact on children. Adults who were shamed as children are more likely to have problems with self-esteem and problems having intimate relationships with others. They have difficulty making decisions because they constantly second-guess themselves, and they have a hard time accepting feedback. Boys who have suffered continuous shaming are more likely to display aggressive and even violent behavior.
I remember so little about my childhood and so it surprises me that I still remember that incident nearly 40 years ago. Just five minutes out of a single day out of more than 15,000 days and it sticks out so clearly. I was supposed to know exactly how to read the word second and since I didn’t I was failing, at least according to my grandfather. I’m fine, of course. It was just one moment. Had there been many more like it, though, how deeply would I have been affected?
I wonder how many times, out of sheer exhaustion or frustration, I’ve done the same thing to my own children? Reacted without patience or understanding? I know how fragile little hearts are and I’m happy to say that most of the time I can tell when I’ve overdone it or responded to them in some way that hurts. They feel very comfortable letting me know, and I’m generally quick to react with empathy and an apology. Still, I hate the idea that I might ever belittle my children the way my grandfather belittled me that day.
He didn’t make me want to be a better reader. He didn’t make me feel like he was someone I could ever rely on. He made me distrust him, and for a while anyway, distrust myself. We didn’t see grandpa often but when we did he was usually more gruff and critical than anything else. My memories of him are not positive.
Every interaction with our children can be one they remember forever. This doesn’t mean we have to walk around on tiptoes, because the truth is that it’s the aggregation of all our interactions that matters most. How we have behaved in total, and whether we have created a consistently safe and loving space for our kids while at the same time teaching them and disciplining when necessary. I just think, in this age where parents publicly shaming kids or calling them out on Facebook seems to happen more and more often, we need to recognize that even one moment of shame can last a lifetime.
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