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Shaming a child for behavior doesn’t work—here’s what does

Punishment and shame don't create positive behavior change. Here's why experts say there's a better way.

why shaming children doesn't work

How often do we see a "misbehaving" child and think to ourselves, that kid needs more discipline? How often do we look at our own misbehaving child and think the same thing?

Our society is conditioned to believe that we have to be strict and stern with our kids, or threaten, shame or punish them into behaving. This authoritarian style of parenting is characterized by high expectations and low responsiveness—a tough love approach.

But while this type of authoritarian parenting may elicit "obedient" kids in the short-term, studies suggest that children who are shamed or punished in the name of discipline face challenges in the long-term. Research suggests that children who are harshly disciplined or shamed tend to be less happy, less independent, less confident, less resilient, more aggressive and hostile, more fearful and at higher risk for substance abuse and mental health issues as adults and adolescents.

The reason? No one ever changes from being shamed.


Research shows that punishing and shaming kids creates more misbehavior, not less.

Consider this scenario:

You've fallen behind at work. You're under the gun to finish a presentation and turn in an admittedly-sloppy final draft full of careless mistakes. You know you can do better, but you haven't been feeling well, have had insomnia for the past few weeks, and you're having a lot of anxiety about your health which has been interfering with your work performance. Upon reviewing the presentation, your boss storms into your office, slams it down on your desk and yells, "What is this garbage? My kindergartner can do better than this! If you don't have this entire thing redone by tomorrow, you're FIRED!"

How do you feel? You already felt awful and now you've just had a nice dose of shame to compound your feelings of misery. You might work hard to fix the presentation out of fear of being fired, and maybe you'll never turn in a half-baked presentation again, but did your boss's response help address the root of the problem? No. His angry, punitive response made you feel insignificant, misunderstood and angry. Both at yourself and at him.

Now consider this:

Same scenario, except after you hand in the presentation, your boss knocks on your door and asks if he can come in and talk with you for a moment. He sits down and explains that he looked over your presentation and was surprised that it wasn't up to your normal standards. He asks if everything is okay and genuinely seems concerned. You explain that you've had some recent health issues and you've been a bit preoccupied. Your boss listens attentively and empathizes, saying how sorry he is to hear that you've been having a rough time. He explains that you'll have to stay late to revise the presentation but suggests that you take a personal day to get some rest and make an appointment with your doctor.

How do you feel? Seen, heard and understood. Relieved. Cared for. You stay late and work extra hard to fix the presentation. You turn it in with confidence and head home feeling less anxious and empowered to finally see that doctor you've been avoiding.

In the heat of the moment dealing with negative behavior from our child—a huge meltdown over a toy they can't live without, or some action we think they should "know better" than to do—we may instinctively react with shame and punishment, thanks to how prevalent this disciplinary reaction is in our culture. But shame and punishment never result in lasting or positive change. It may seem like the easy way out to yell at our kids, to send them to time out, to shame them with our words and punish them with our actions. But this only disconnects us, creates fear and anger in our children and lessens our influence on them.

We do not need to punish our kids to teach them a lesson, just as we don't need to be punished in order to shift our behavior.

"But how will my child learn to behave?" parents ask.

They learn through our modeling.

They learn through connection, love and compassion.

They learn through being seen, heard and understood.

They learn through consistent and firm limits.

They learn through guidance.

We have to let go of our tired and ineffective all or nothing thinking—If I don't draw a hard line, my kid won't learn how to behave—and we need to embrace a new paradigm—I can have high standards for my child's behavior and tune into and be responsive to her emotional needs. It doesn't have to be one or the other, it can be both.

When we replace the old adage "spare the rod, spoil the child," with the motto, "children need the most love when they're acting the least deserving of it," we will begin to create a new parenting paradigm that will result in happier, healthier and more resilient kids.

Next time your child acts out, instead of reacting with shame or punishment, try getting down on their level, mirroring his frustration by saying something like, "I see you are having a hard time," then giving them a hug. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

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Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

Minimize smoke exposure.

Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

Do your best to filter the air.

According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

"Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

"COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

Most importantly, don't panic.

In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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