3 Tips for Shame-Free Discipline

September 17, 2013 at 6:20 am (Positive Discipline)


Brené Brown has been on my iPod a lot lately. Between Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, and The Power of Vulnerability, her work has had an influence on my life. Brené is a researcher from the University of Houston who studies things that are not easily studied: shame, vulnerability, and courage. Not things that are easy to talk about, either. But things that affect the quality of our lives, and things that are imperative to consider when it comes to raising children.

The underlying mantra of positive parenting is “connection before correction.” This means that any ‘correcting’ (teaching,  guiding, etc.) that a parent must do won’t happen effectively unless a strong relationship is in place first. It means the degree of correction depends on the strength of connection, and only when a child feels a sense of belonging; a sense of significance; a sense of attachment does maturation occur.

On the topic of shame Brené says, “Human beings are hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging. And shame is the sense that we are unworthy: unworthy of love, unworthy of belonging, unworthy of connection.”

So for everything positive parenting is based in, shame is a toxin. Shameful discipline undermines the emotional connection we have with our kids and instead gives them a sense that they are unworthy of love and belonging.

When we endeavor to raise kids in a consistently loving, unconditional, secure environment,  we must aim to keep shame out of that environment. How can we do this? When a child destroys property or hurts a friend or “experiments” in the kitchen, how can we respond in a way that doesn’t cause her to experience shame? How can we communicate that we love our children–and that they are worthy of that love–even through situations that we might not love?

1. Take out the “You.” 
Oh, look what you did!
You broke it!
What did you do?
Who did this?!

Blame doesn’t accomplish anything except to make a person feel bad. A young child who is still developing so much of his identity and sense of self is more likely to think “I am bad,” than, “I made a mistake.”  That’s not to say you shouldn’t express your surprise or concern for the situation. Just try to eliminate the finger pointing…

Oh, look what happened!
Oh no, it’s broken!
Oh my gosh, there is poop everywhere!

It’s the same overall reaction, without the shaming element of “you”. For example, let’s say your 5-year-old hits his 2-year-old sister. Before you jump in and accuse him with, “What did you just do to your sister?” try to take out the “you” and just gain understanding.
Parent: What happened?
Child: We were playing!
Parent: And?
Child: And she took my toy!
Parent: And?
Child: And I didn’t want her to!
Parent: And you were angry?
Child: Yes!
Parent: And you hit her?
Child: Yes, but she shouldn’t have done that!

So eventually you can get to the “you,” after some curiosity questions to understand the child’s perspective, but try to avoid it right away as a an accusation of blame. Keep your connection strong by focusing on what happened and just getting the facts first.

2. Add in a “We.”
Let a child know you’re on her team. She may have made a mistake, but you’re there to help her fix it. What kids need in the face of their mistakes is support. If they’re old enough to fix their own mistakes, you can support and encourage them to do just that. If they’re very young,  you can step in and let them know you’re right there with them.

How can we fix it?
What should we do now?
We need to clean this up. You go get rags and wipe the counters. I’ll get the garbage can and pick up the pieces.

The purpose of the “we” step is to communicate with your words and actions that you are on her side. You don’t think your child is a bad person for a mistake she made.

3. Acknowledge and Thank
Give the child credit for fixing his mistake, and reestablish that it’s OK. Life goes on. There is no need to go over and over the situation, rehashing the mistake that was made, and reinforcing the lesson of what he learned for “next time.” Instead of dwelling of what went wrong, focus on what went right.

Thank you for your help!
I appreciate you making things right with your sister.
The bathroom looks great.
I know you didn’t mean for that to happen, but you really took care of fixing it.

Most importantly, acknowledge kids’ efforts in fixing their mistakes, and make it clear you don’t hold those mistakes against them. Reaffirm that they are worthy of love and belonging through any of life’s obstacles.


  1. Tips for Parenting Young Children – Build Positive Momentum said,

    […] 3 Tips for Shame-Free Discipline (parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com) […]

  2. DetroitFamilyFun said,

    Fantastic article! Great advice 😉

  3. cultivatingkim said,

    Good advice no matter what age.

  4. Sandra Goulet said,

    Great advice..wish I had it 25 yrs ago..:(

  5. Top Parenting Posts of 2013… A Few of My Favorites | TRU ParentingTRU Parenting said,

    […] Kelly Bartlett: 3 Tips for Shame Free Discipline. There is a significant difference between guilt and shame as is taught by Brene Brown in her TED […]

  6. Janet Dykstra said,

    Brene Brown tends to make generalized statements (Regarding shaming in another article… http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/25/dr-brene-brown-shame-in-school-classrooms_n_2935956.html “This happens every day in every classroom.” I know for a fact it does not.)
    Every child is their own individual self and we must find what works best for each child, not generalize, as in the suggestions she gives in the article. Hers are reminiscent of the late 70’s theories of discipline. “I like you, I just don’t like what you did.” If they had worked then we’d be seeing the results now and I’m afraid we are not.
    Having been a teacher and a parent for many years, I will say it is a very difficult, 24/7 job. One must truly love the child and discipline individually. It’s not as easy as following a scripted plan. Just my two cents (or may 20 cents)!

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