As every parent knows, there is a dark side to raising children. While love comes naturally, the same is not always true of affection and pride. Indeed, you would not be the first parent to hide a deep sense of shame.
Justified and Unjustified
Of course, the reasons people feel ashamed vary. And they cannot always be justified. Many parents seek to fulfil themselves though their offspring, like the football-mad father who pushes his sensitive, bookish son into a sport he loathes. In many cases, it is the parents who ought to feel ashamed.
For example, an ambitious mother discovers that her youngest son is very bright. She dreams of some top college, maybe even Oxford or Harvard. Then she thinks of her rich friend, the one who just moved into the big detached house, the one whose husband took her to Paris last week. She’d be so jealous! And so she pushes him. She hires a private tutor, nags him to do his homework, and asks his teachers for constant updates. Gradually, stress and exhaustion wear him down and he rebels. His exam results are disappointing, and the dream, the mother’s dream, fades.
These sorts of examples could be multiplied endlessly. When a child fails an exam, loses his job, struggles to make his marriage work, gets into debt, etc, worry and disappointment are understandable. But shame is not.
Let’s say your child marries and starts a family. He and his wife argue and make one another miserable. They try their best but admit defeat, and he moves out. That is not shameful. If he beat his wife, broke her self-esteem, cheated on her, etc, your shame would be justifiable.
Shame implies cowardice or cruelty – a moral failing or failure of character. In particular, it implies cruelty towards someone or something that cannot defend itself, or taking advantage of someone for gain or pleasure. If your child has been bullying a smaller boy for no reason, that is shameful; if he has failed his spelling test, that is merely worrying.
Finally, a distinction needs to be made between a specific fault and what your child essentially is. Most people have moments of spite, cruelty, or selfishness. Some even go through phases of this. Freud, for example, identified a “sadistic” phase in which children pull the wings off flies, hit their smaller siblings, etc. Unpleasant traits are part of being human (no doubt you have some of your own).
Ego and Status
First, consider why you feel ashamed. Do you feel guilty for failing your child? Maybe you feel guilty for failing society. More often, the true reasons are selfish. Parents feel ashamed because their child has failed them. For example, when the British novelist Salman Rushdie told his father he intended to be a novelist, he blurted out “but what will I tell my friends?”
A child is not an extension of its parents. In the healthiest family unit, love and support are balanced with space and freedom. Everyone accepts that other members have a right to privacy and to a life beyond the home. Should they seek help or advice, the others rally round. But no one clings or depends on anyone else. And the parents do not use their children to compensate for their own failures, or to boost their self-esteem.
Unfortunately, most families aren’t like this. Either they are too distant or too close. Some parents regard their children as little more than a burden and continue to pursue their career with the same devotion as before. When the child then does something outrageous, they react with fury and shame. Often, of course, the child is seeking attention.
Then there is the other extreme: the mother or father who sees their child as an extension of their own ego. The child’s glory is the parent’s glory, and the child’s shame is the parent’s shame. The consequences of this should be obvious. Inevitably, the child rebels. Often, they fail on purpose. This may be their only way of claiming autonomy – reminding their parents that they are separate individuals with a will of their own.
Anyone could find something shameful and disappointing in their child. Human beings are violent, irrational, lustful, competitive, and jealous. What else do you expect from a species half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee? Expecting too much of people, whether friends, neighbors, or even loved ones, guarantees bitterness and disappointment.
For example, someone outraged to discover her teenage son watching pornography, or swearing with friends, is being absurd. It is also absurd to blame yourself for every mistake your child makes. You can certainly influence and shape their personality, but you are not responsible for all they do.
No one is perfect. That seems so obvious as to hardly need stating, but when it comes to their children, people often imagine they can mold them into something flawless. Most people are an unpredictable mix of good and evil. A child who steals to fund a drug habit may not be fundamentally bad, just selfish, naive, and easily led.
Truly appalling acts, like sexual assault or violence towards a partner, unleash a whirlwind of emotion. First, parents wonder where they went wrong. Did they spoil their son? Were they too soft – or too hard? Then comes rage, shame, worry for their future, and so on. But you are not responsible for everything your child does. This is an individual who must seek atonement in his own way.
A cliché it may be, but to understand is to forgive. If your child has hit a smaller child, or stolen money from your friend’s purse, etc, there may be a reason. Maybe he stole the money because a violent gang threatened him, or because his friend is in debt.
Peer pressure rules a teenager’s life. And adults tend to forget what this is like. For a teenager, the need to fit in overrides everything. And that need can motivate behavior that is wholly out of character. Behind the sneering adolescent attitude, there often lies a storm of fear, insecurity, and self-loathing. What seems like a selfish or shameful act may be an attempt to connect with others.
Theft is a good example. People assume that a thief is simply greedy and amoral, out for what he can get and indifferent to others. Of course, some are. But theft can also be a way of attracting attention. Many young people find themselves in pain but unable to express it. Theft, like self-harm or suicide attempts, can sometimes be a cry for help.
More generally, a psychological or emotional problem may lie at the root of their behavior. ADHD, post-traumatic stress, social anxiety, even depression, can all lead to dangerous and destructive acts.
When a child embarrasses or shames its parents, their instinct is to avoid friends and neighbors. But isolated in this way, they soon imagine everyone gossiping about their son’s drug habit or their daughter’s affair. In reality, most people are too preoccupied with their own worries.
Still, if you live in a village where little happens, or if your child’s behavior is extreme, there may well be gossip. Unfortunately, your avoidance will only fuel their curiosity. The best way to respond is with dignified honesty. Don’t burst into tears and look for sympathy (you may get a hug, but not without embarrassing or even irritating them). On the other hand, cold detachment will just antagonize people. Explain what happened in a calm and dignified way. Be honest and open about the pain it has caused you and the majority will sympathize. Indeed, your dignity may shame them for taking pleasure in your misfortune.
Feeling ashamed of your child is a uniquely painful experience. It is also a very lonely one, since even the most humiliated and embarrassed parent still feels protective. But take some consolation from this – you are not alone!