Raising a Boy Using Shame

“Shame on you.” It’s how we were parented, but it’s not how we should be parenting.

As a kid I got shamed a lot when I did something wrong. Not only when I did something wrong, but when I genuinely felt scared or sad I was shamed and told “I‘ll give you something to cry about” as if my reasons for being emotional weren’t good enough.


Sure, my old man’s shaming approach worked. I listened to my Dad. I was afraid of him. His dirty look and tone had me scared. I did what he said because fear and shame felt so awful, and I didn’t want more of his intensity. And, his low-grade subtle form of shaming made me tough on the outside. And in doing so, it successfully covered up the profound sensitivity on the inside. I had to bottle up my vulnerability because my family had no room for it.

Why couldn’t they hang with all of me? Because my mom and dad couldn’t embrace their own sensitivity or vulnerability. That’s how it works.

Strangely, when I confronted my dad as an adult, his response was very telling. He said something like “yeah, but it worked.” In other words, he (and probably many men in his generation) still believes that shame is a good tool when raising a boy.  This is the boy-code in full effect.


My old man kicked ass in a lot of ways, and he came up short in a lot of ways. He wasn’t emotionally available and had no tools in this area so he couldn’t help me with my sensitivity and vulnerability. When we talked about it, it was clear his vulnerable side had been ignored and squashed when he was a boy. As an adult, he never did any personal work, so it never changed.

When we parents are unable or unwilling to work with our own emotions and hurt places, we will act out with our kids. Typically we will try to shut down our kid’s experience first, instead of acknowledging that we are scared, triggered, or overwhelmed. It’s understandable because we get activated so fast in families. Our core hurt comes on in nanoseconds and we just “react.”

As a new parent, when my son acts out by hitting his sister, talking back, or “manipulating” me, it often provokes me into considering the shame tool. I don’t like that my son has this power, but it’s the way it is. I see my inner-shamer come out and hear my dad’s voice inside my head shaming my son. Thankfully before I let it out, I have space to notice it. I have enough room to choose a different course. Whew. And, thank me for being a parent who does the inner work required to have another option besides shame.

And yes, my inner-shamer does come out once in a while with my son, myself, my wife, friends, and strangers. It’s one I’ve been working on for years. He just lives in me, like an old troll, and pops out before I know it.  Yet over the years, I’ve gained more ground and space so I can see other choices most of the time.

My work as a parent is to slow this down and not let the animal part of my brain (encoding based on past memory) run the show. Having slowed down, I can see that I am reacting from a very young, hurt place in myself.

In the most subtle and intense fights with family members our rational brain goes out the window. It’s like the hurt little kid inside of us takes the driver’s seat while the adult that can make good cognitive decisions is no where to be found. We enter a fight- flight – freeze, survival response. And, it’s all very normal.

Knowing that this is how we operate allows us room to get support and explore other possibilities. Soon enough, we gain more awareness, which opens to the door to more choices.


And, unlike animals, we can also “clean up” the mess we perhaps created if we shame our son, abandon him, or shut him down. We can take care of the hurt little one inside of us and choose to have the inner adult take the driver’s seat.

Then we can approach our actual son who we just hurt and clean it up. We can say “Hey, when Daddy said _______, I see that that scared you. That makes sense because Daddy raised his voice and got very mad at you. I apologize. I just want you to know that I love you and I don’t want to scare you. I want to learn how to respond differently when you do that behavior again. And, I want you to know that behavior is not okay in our household.” (more options here).


Shame or Tough Love?

Most parents think “hey, I don’t shame my kids.” But shame can be a sneaky, shadowy, elusive emotion. Shame can be as subtle as looking away disappointed, or overtly telling your kid they did it wrong.

Most of us normal parents will shame our kids from time to time. And, most of us dads will shame our sons. Sadly it’s part of our male conditioning. Plan on it. I like the 80/20 rule. If 80% of the time you are using no shame, your son will likely be a healthy adult with limited shame in him. Remember, we parents are not perfect, nor will we ever be (no need to shame yourself here). However, let’s not use “hey I’m not perfect” as an excuse for continuing harmful behavior when we are capable, as adults, of a healthier choice. The only way to do that is if we commit to working on ourselves and gaining new tools (see below).

Shaming your kids works really well if you want children to feel insecure about being themselves and to follow rules because they are afraid of you.  Shame is a good tool to control and manipulate kids. They will listen and they will be very afraid to do anything outside the acceptable behaviors you enforce. Then, when they are adults, they will be terribly confused and fearful in intimate relationships. They will become adults who turn in to hurt little children in their most intimate partnerships. They will become parents who revert to shame as a tool when they get triggered.

By in large, shame perpetuates emotional (including neglect), verbal, and physical abuse and will train your son to not believe in himself. The only way out of shame is to deal with our inner child that is deeply hurt and re-parent him or her.

And, here’s where I contradict myself: On the one hand, no child deserves to be humiliated or shamed. And (big risk here), on the other hand once in a blue moon, and strangely enough, shame (or a version of it called tough love) might be what’s required to cut through and help your child grow. It certainly did me when I was in middle school (for more context read Shame versus Tough Love).


My suggestion?

There are two keys to shame-free parenting:

  1. Your Inner work—When we learn to parent ourselves and do the inner work required to parent consciously, we have more options on the menu.  For example, when we make a mistake, we now have the ability to model cleaning it up. When we clean it up, our kids understand that adults screw up, and can take responsibility for it, which builds trust again.
  2. Get some effective tools by taking parenting classes. Don’t know how to clean it up? No idea how to set limits without shaming your kid? Take a parenting class, read books, join groups or on-line forums that support your value system.

This post was inspired by this post “You just broke your child, congratulations.”

Photo by mdanys/Flickr

About Jayson Gaddis

Jayson Gaddis, host of The Smart Couple Podcast, is THE breakthrough marriage and relationship coach for smart, successful, people. He’s on the planet to help people learn and master intimacy and relationship. He’s a husband and part-time stay-at-home Dad getting schooled by his two cosmic kids. Jayson writes his own highly personal blog, and has also written for Integral Life, Digital Romance, The Jungle of Life, Primer Magazine, Recovering Yogi, & Elephant Journal. You can find him here: Jayson Gaddis or sign up for this month's free training If Your Man Unavailable or Shut Down. You can also become a fan on Facebook here: Jayson Gaddis Fan Page.


  1. I agree with everything, I just disagree strongly with you using animals in negative context over and over. It is time to end shame and it is time to end looking down at other mammals as well. Animals can and DO fix their broken relashionships, no matter if it’s with a human or another animal. They are loving and caring and have emotions same as you do. They are not just brainlessly running around pieces of meat, they are leading their own lives. Just because they didn’t invent ipods doesn’t mean they are inferior. They just don’t need ipods. And this is how our kids learn about accepting differences and coexisting peacefully with other humans – by respecting different species first. Animals, dogs and cats in particular, are also doing a lot of hard work caring and helping and saving human lives, from discovering smuggled drugs to helping blind people and autistic children to actually giving their lives protecting their fellow human officers. My dog saved my family during fire and my cats and her saved me from going through with the suicide attempt while none of the people in my life have never even noticed I was suicidal. So please no shame. Of any kind.

  2. After reading the title and first part of the article, I was a little apprehensive but as I read your “boy code” link and a bit more of the article I was very appreciative of your point of view.

    As a father and a kid who was shamed, you gave great insight on how this old trick can hurt our boys.

    I must admit, I subscribe to the old thought that boys have to be tough and not show weakness. Its just that I know the world is tough and there is no sympathy for boys/men. I don’t completely agree with all that but I know that’s usually how it plays out. I just want to soften the blow in a sense.

    As I got older, I found that allowing yourself to be sensitive and vulnerable really makes you complete as a person and its incredible to experience life that way. I don’t think you should over do it but why not allow a tear during a good movie? It might sound weird, but watching Ray Lewis’ “My Football Life” sort of inspired me.

    With that said, I think shame can be used properly. I was well taken care of by my parents. In some ways, I was spoiled and at times, unappreciative. My parents would shame me and I hated it. I felt guilty, I didn’t feel good about myself.

    When I became a parent, it all clicked. I love my sons with all of my being. My wife and I kill ourselves for the well being of our kids. When they step out of line, it hurts. Naturally we want to convey that and it doesn’t always happen the way it should. I think about my parents in those instances. It clicks to me now as a 30 year old father, but it felt wrong as a kid. I think like anything else, moderation is key.

    In the end, what it comes down to for me is a lot like the quote by Maya Angelou about how “people will never forget how you made them feel.” I want my kids to understand, at some point, that mom and dad are not robots who serve them. We are people, just like them and us “shaming” them isn’t to make them feel bad, but to feel what it is we experience when they disappoint us.

    Just my .02.

    Thank you again for great insight!

  3. drdanfee says:

    Thanks lots for this article. What a great opportunity to be the kinds of fathers we usually wished we had as kids growing up, but sadly, did not have. It’s never to late to have an effective, loving Dad: Be one yourself, today. My adopted Dad was way too busy pulling the plow to do much of anything else, a time bind not uncommon in working class families, especially these days when the economy is so far down that any work seems preferable to no work. I also knew I was gay from an unusually early age (4 years old) so that put quite a few wrinkles in the twisted fabric that was already old-fashioned shame-based parenting. The, locate us all in the USA Bible where guilt/shame got all confused with having faith. Tranquilizers, anyone?

  4. http://bpdfamily.com/bpdresources/nk_a108.htm

    Borderline Personality Disorder is one of the most sever personality disorders and has no real cure or medicinal treatments. This link takes you to an article telling about the effects bpd mothers have on their children – but the sidebar is an excellent bullet list of the psychological effects of shaming children.

    “Some characteristics of adults shamed in childhood

    1. Adults shamed as children are afraid of vulnerability and fear of exposure of the self.

    2. Adults shamed as children may suffer extreme shyness, embarrassment and feelings of being inferior to others. They don’t believe they make mistakes. Instead they believe they are mistakes.

    3. Adults shamed as children fear intimacy and tend to avoid real commitment in relationships. These adults frequently express the feeling that one foot is out of the door prepared to run.

    4. Adults shamed as children may appear either grandiose and self-centered or seem selfless.

    5. Adults shamed as children feel that, “No matter what I do, it won’t make a difference; I am and always will be worthless and unlovable.”

    6. Adults shamed as children frequently feel defensive when even a minor negative feedback is given. They suffer feelings of severe humiliation if forced to look at mistakes or imperfections.

    7. Adults shamed as children frequently blame others before they can be blamed.

    8. Adults shamed as children may suffer from debilitating guilt These individuals apologize constantly. They assume responsibility for the behavior of those around them.

    9. Adults shamed as children feel like outsiders. They feel a pervasive sense of loneliness throughout their lives, even when surrounded with those who love and care.

    10. Adults shamed as children project their beliefs about themselves onto others. They engage in mind-reading that is not in their favor, consistently feeling judged by others.

    11. Adults shamed as children often feel ugly, flawed and imperfect. These feelings regarding self may lead to focus on clothing and make-up in an attempt to hide flaws in personal appearance and self.

    12. Adults shamed as children often feel angry and judgmental towards the qualities in others that they feel ashamed of in themselves. This can lead to shaming others.

    13. Adults shamed as children often feel controlled from the outside as well as from within. Normal spontaneous expression is blocked.

    14. Adults shamed as children feel they must do things perfectly or not at all. This internalized belief frequently leads to performance anxiety and procrastination.

    15. Adults shamed as children experience depression.

    16. Adults shamed as children block their feelings of shame through compulsive behaviors like workaholis, eating disorders, shopping, substance abuse, list-making or gambling.

    17. Adults shamed as children lie to themselves and others.

    18. Adults shamed as children often have caseloads rather than friendships.

    19. Adults shamed as children often involve themselves in compulsive processing of past interactions and events and intellectualization as a defense against pain.

    20. Adults shamed as children have little sense of emotional boundaries. They feel constantly violated by others. They frequently build false boundaries through walls, rage, pleasing or isolation.

    21. Adults shamed as children are stuck in dependency or counter-dependency.

    Jane Middleton-Moz

  5. Jason thank you for this excellent piece and for pointing out what a pivotal role shame plays in parenthood and manhood. I felt ashamed from a young age. In my case I don’t know that it was my parents overtly but more an out of control environment and some deep seated panick and self doubt. The work of manhood has been coming to grips with that. And allowing myself to love my kids with my whole heart and with no expectation has been the biggest single part of that.

    • Jayson Gaddis says:

      Tom, you are welcome. awesome. sounds like you have come out of the shame trap that so many little boys got trapped in. Thanks for doing whatever personal work you did to get there. I’m curious if your shame still rears its head from time to time?

  6. Really took a lot away from this piece. Raising a boy in a two-home situation I think my son’s Dad was raised with shaming being at the core of his childhood experience and see myself working hard with my partner to fix this every time he comes home from being with his Dad.

    I bookmarked this one and shared it with friend because I think even Mom’s need to realize that we enable the shaming and often are at the core of it. Looking back on my own childhood I think I can relate to much of what you experienced but from my Mom but it’s the tools they were given and we don’t have to use those same tools to build our families. Our parents did the best they could and all we can do is make an effort to do better and keep improving the process.

    Thank you for writing this!

    • Jayson Gaddis says:

      absolutely moms can and do use shame. it’s a human thing. not just a guy thing. moms shame a bit differently perhaps?

  7. Yeah the bottom line is we can only do better if we feel good about ourselves and are empowered. Any form of shame does the complete opposite of that, therefore any change that does happen comes at a heavy price and will seep out in some other destructive way. Ever seen any or Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication stuff. He calls it a suicidal attempt to get a need met. Suicidal because it makes it less likely that we will get our need met in that way. It is such a shame that we still use shame;-) (that was my attempt at shame humor..teehee;-) Thanks for sharing this because we need to understand shame so we can see how useless it is and do away with it. It still happens surprisingly A LOT! I don’t use it on my toddler but I think that is because I never use it on myself.

  8. Wirbelwind says:

    Shame is useful when dealing with very bad and alarming things your kid has done, like unprovoked attacks, stealing etc. However, shame is a powerful tool and shouldn’t be abused…

    • Jayson Gaddis says:

      so you are suggesting we use shame when they steal? shaming shameful behavior might not be the ticket. we have to be more creative than that. what is driving the stealing behavior? perhaps a deep inadequacy, in which case, would you really shame someone like that? what would that get you?

  9. Shame was central to my upbringing, and I believe that this is why I am a weak, anxious adult.

  10. wellokaythen says:

    I mostly agree about using shame too much as a parenting tool. For one thing, you can actually make a child rebel against any sense of shame. The kid might grow into someone who refuses to apologize about anything ever, because he got sick of parents trying to manipulate him using shame. I know I grew up in a fairly shame-filled household and the result (me) is a somewhat rebellious, shameless lout. Now if anyone tells me I should be ashamed of myself, I tend to think I’m probably doing something right….

    On the other hand, shame is still part of how many of us see morality play itself out in our society. It’s central to our political and social activism. I’m not sure we should give up saying politician X “ought to be ashamed of himself for doing that” or celebrity Y “should be ashamed for saying that” or CEO of corporation Z “ought to be ashamed of dumping that toxic sludge like that.”

    Though, come to think of it, if shame really made people behave themselves, we would never ever have to say anyone “ought to be ashamed,” because they already would be. Maybe it fails as much as it succeeds.

    • Jayson Gaddis says:

      Yup. sounds like you might still be rebelling. is that still necessary? or are you reacting out of a pattern fro the past? when we say someone “ought to be ashamed” of X behavior, we just add more shame on the shit pile. it doesn’t work. they already feel it, why rub their nose in it and what does that do for you? fighting shame with more shame ain’t the way.

      • wellokaythen says:

        So, does that mean that there is no such thing as “shameful behavior”? No one could ever face the criticism that he or she behaved “disgracefully”? That’s going to be hard to give up.

        • Jayson Gaddis says:

          shameful behavior? sure. but no need to remind someone. when we feel ashamed, we know it. some of us just mask it and cover it up so we don’t have to face or feel it. I just hear a lot of judging going on. what is disgraceful really? shameful behavior? according to whose moral and ethical standards?

  11. There are some things people should be ashamded of, and that has to start in childhood – but failing to conform to some gender role is not one of them.

    Kids should learn the difference between vulnerability and weakness. One is natural and necessary for any kind of real strength, one is shameful. Selfishnes is shameflul, though I realize how fast the economy would collapse if consumers stiopped feeding their egos and telling themselves “They’ve earned this …whatever the toy of the moment happens to be.

    What a better world – and almost unrecognizable – it would be if people were ashamed of lying.

    • Jayson Gaddis says:

      Agreed about the gender role Jim.

      What is shameful? weakness? I disaggree. Weakness is just weakness. no need to add extra value judgments. we are all weak at times. it’s part of the human experience and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it, IMO.

      selfishness ain’t shameful in my world. narcissism is the issue. and that’s typically not a person’s fault, it’s how they got brought up. blaming anyone for their stance in life is adding more shame in the mix. why keep shaming people?

      there is also a difference between shaming someone and feeling ashamed. it seems that we are built to feel ashamed when we behave in ways that are out of our own integrity. that can and does motivate a lot of us to make different choices. but, the issue is in this culture that many folks can not feel how ashamed they are b/c they’ve been trained to stuff it, or bury it, again mostly b/c it hasn’t been safe for them.


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