“You make me feel like I belong under the sun.” –Citizen Cope
I was not expecting to experience such an emotional response when Dr. Shefali Tsabary shared her video about parent shaming with me. It was the following words, found two minutes and twenty seconds into the video, that brought me to tears:
“I came to you so you could honor my soul, nurture my worth, and preserve my spirit. Yet it is you who annihilates my very essence in the name of parenting, in the name of love, in the name of teaching.”
Dr. Shefali then calls on parents to “become the person they are meant to be.” She describes it from a child’s perspective as:
The usher of my soul
Not too long ago, I was good at shaming my children. It wasn’t obvious. It was subtle. Exasperated breaths. Eye rolls. Belittling. Inducing guilt. Acting like they should know better. But they were children. They were learning, and I seemed to forget that.
I thought it was my job to teach them a lesson.
But what I was teaching them was that I could never be satisfied. I was teaching them to confide in someone else—someone who would be more understanding and less reactive. I was teaching them to strive for perfection, no matter the cost.
Although I’d improved on seeing the positives rather than the negatives in people and situations, there was still work to do. It was an intentional change in my approach to life that revealed exactly where further improvement was needed and more importantly, why.
When my family moved to a new state, I saw an opportunity to let go of some of the pressures I’d put on myself in my former community. I used the move as a chance to start over and give myself some breathing room. With less inner criticism on my appearance, productivity level, and societal contributions, I felt long-held stresses and unrealistic expectations wane. I felt lighter and happier than I had in my former community. One night I happened to ask my daughter if our new place was starting to feel like home. She said something I will never forget.
“I can breathe here.”
Yes, this was a less competitive community. Yes, unique differences were more widely accepted. Yes, there was more diversity. But I couldn’t help but believe it was the change in me that had most impacted my child’s ability to breathe. In my efforts to put less pressure on myself, I’d indirectly put less pressure on her. I’d given her more room to breathe, more freedom to be herself. And this space resulted in her ability to express important information to me. I was certain of one thing: As my child continued to grow and mature, I did not want to miss conversations like these.
I started paying more attention to the way I reacted to the way she did things (even if they were not as efficient or messier than the way I did them). I frequently reflected back on conversations and asked myself if I left her feeling better or worse after spending time with me. I noticed if certain words I used brought relief or worry to her face. These observations led to more change.
I began swallowing comments on her hairstyles and physique. I wasn't so quick to dissuade or disagree when she talked about future plans or shared her opinion on things. I listened to her casual banter with no judgment, just presence. I knew that more serious topics would come from her lips someday, and I prayed she would confide in me.
Little did I know it would happen so soon.
One evening as she was getting ready for bed, words came from my child’s mouth that I never thought I’d hear. I felt like I could not breathe. I was sucker punched. I was greatly disappointed by her choice.
But she was telling me.
She was telling me.
This infraction was something she could have kept to herself and carried as a burden on her soul for many years. But just as I'd listened non-judgmentally to her commentary on cat toys and nail art the day before, I vowed to react in a way that kept this line of communication open for future conversations.
Before I spoke, I told myself:
Do not overreact.
Do not cry.
Do not threaten.
Do not belittle.
Do not act like you never made a mistake.
I then recalled the most shameful moment in life, and I said what I would have wanted to hear at the time.
“I am so glad you told me this,” I whispered to my distraught child. “Keeping it inside is harmful. You did the right thing by talking to me. I want you to know that other young people have made this same poor choice.”
Her lowly hanging head abruptly lifted. “They have?”
I saw pent up air expel from her chest as a weight was lifted. She was not the only one. She was not alone.
This was a pivotal moment. Although I would have had every right to punish her … to take away her freedoms … to lecture her on rights and wrongs, I didn’t.
I thought of my most shameful moment again. It was precisely the moment I didn’t need a lesson or a lecture. It was precisely the moment I needed to know my people would not desert me in my time of despair.
Now don’t get me wrong, I let my child know I was disappointed. I let her know she would have to earn back my trust. I let her know of some changes that would be made to protect her and prevent future issues. But I did not shame or forsake her in her time of need. I did not kick her while she was down. There will be plenty of other people to do that in her lifetime.
My child eventually fell into my arms crying. This brought me to the moment I’d been wondering about since she was small. Would I be able to say the most loving words when I was most disappointed? Would I be able to support her even when I felt betrayed? Would I be able to experience let down and resist the urge to push her away? Yes. Yes. I would.
“Listen,” I said firmly. “No matter what mistakes you make today, tomorrow, or throughout your life, I will always love you. I will never turn my back on you. Okay?”
In the moment I could have crushed her spirit, I supported her.
In the moment I could have made her doubt herself, I reminded her she was human.
In the moment I could have taught her a harsh lesson, I taught her a loving lesson … a trust lesson … a grace lesson.
I think about these lessons of love, trust, and grace when she chews with her mouth open, when she gets a low mark, when she forgets something important. I know her infractions will become more severe as she grows and so will the societal pressures, temptations, and curiosities. I’d only gotten one small taste of what is to come. When I think about teaching my child a lesson I want it to be one of love, forgiveness, and understanding. I want to be a safe haven, not a person to be feared or avoided, in times of despair.
I am far from a perfect parent. I do not always choose love. There are many words and reactions I wish I could take back. But today matters more than yesterday. And today, it is my hope to spread this healing message:
We have the power to teach our children a lesson.
We have the power to make them regret a poor choice.
We have the power to ensure they never forget what they’ve done.
But we also have the power to open a door for difficult future conversations.
We have the power to be a calm and supportive presence in their time of need.
We have the power to prevent a shameful experience from leaving a scar.
We have the power to prevent them from doing something permanent to stop the pain.
Let us not kick our children when they are down.
Let us reach out our hands and help them up.
Let us hug them to our chests and say, “I will not take my love away.”
Let us respond to their mistakes the way we’d want someone to respond to ours.
And in doing so, we might just become the person we are meant to be …
The guardian of her heart
The usher of his soul
The safe haven in a world too quick to shame and destroy what is most precious.
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Beautiful, moving, and motivating.
I put a great deal of pressure on myself and I know that’s why I struggle in many of the same ways you have. I also know society causes some of those struggles. Words said from the pulpit. Grandmas who talk about how they did things (without really remembering ALL the details). Moms and dads whose children are just easier. Society guilts us (if we let it) into being a constant stress ball – constantly thriving for perfect children. We must let them be children. We must let them learn. Otherwise they will turn into adults that no one will like. If I must take the “blame” now, I’ll do it, in order for my children to be successful.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for contributing to the post with your helpful truths and reflections. I am glad you are here, Kirsten.
Notes From The Field says
Beautiful words, Rachel! I’d love to share your essay in full on my new blog website. My goal is to support the community of modern homemakers through writing about my experiences as a mom and women in today’s world, in addition to sharing stories (like this one) from others as well. Would sharing it be ok?
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for the loving feedback on my post. I would welcome you to share a small excerpt from the post on your site with a link to my blog for the remainder of the piece. I appreciate you asking and helping me protect the writings that I work very hard to produce.
jenny johnston says
As a homeschooling mom, I am presented with ABUNDANT opportunities to shame, belittle, lecture and expel guilt on my daughters.
Most days, I take a deep breathe for the majority of those moments and an annoyed sigh only escapes my lips once or twice. Thank goodness I put my children’s feeling above my need to release my own frustrations MOST of the time.
But, your post has screamed in my ear…..I need to ALWAYS place my daughters’ feelings above my own. I am the adult, I can deal with my strong emotions and give my daughters only gentle emotions.
Our school year starts up in one week. I will be re-reading this post each day until then in preparation for the best most loving school year we have had.
Rachel Stafford says
This is beautiful and hopeful. Here’s to the most loving school year your children ever had. Let us all join in this hope.
Oh, Rachel, how you make me weep sometimes. I weep for you, for the pain I know deep insight brings; I weep for me, for the sadness deep understanding brings; I weep for our children, mine, yours, ours, when I understand the hurt that shame can bring. But, somewhere between your words, I hear the laughter and shouts of joy and I know we can be better, we can make it better, we can shine brighter, we can weep joyfully.
It is rare, I think, for parents to look so bravely and honestly inward as you do. It is so easy in this outward, facile world to make rash and hurried decisions. You do not do that and I am indebted to you for that. I would never hang a sign of shame on one of my sons, but, but… I do roll my eyes and sigh in exasperation, I do think the lessons I feel I must teach them trump their feelings, I do fail to “usher their souls.”
We are the curators of our children’s memories, what we do now will stay forever in the trunks and boxes that they will carry with them for a lifetime. We must fill them carefully. God’s peace to you, as always.
Rachel Stafford says
There are tears in my eyes. Your comments are always frame-worthy, but this one, well, it just says everything.
“I know we can be better, we can make it better, we can shine brighter, we can weep joyfully.” Yes. Yes.
“We are the curators of our children’s memories, what we do now will stay forever in the trunks and boxes that they will carry with them for a lifetime. We must fill them carefully.” Yes. Yes.
God’s peace to YOU, as well. Your beautifully crafted comments from the heart fuel me.
“We are the curators of our children’s memories…”.
Oh my, perfect. I will try to keep all of these wonderful, helpful words of wisdom on my mind and heart daily. My son deserves to have beautiful, loving memories.
And thank you, Rachel, for always being there for those of us who need to hear what you have to say so insightfully.
Rachel Stafford says
I am so grateful for your faithful and loving presence on this journey, Cheryll.
Angie Haasch says
Thank you for this. This is putting into words the sadness I feel every night even I reflect on my day; all the impatient words and frustrated responses my husband and I have committed with our two small children. I know we need patience and think of it daily, but this is something more. The pressure we feel to teach our children a lesson, to not let them become spoiled. There’s a lot of societal pressure to be strict, and in doing so, we aren’t nurturing our children’s worth, as you put it. I intend to have a seminar with my husband. We will read this post and hopefully watch the video that inspired you. I plan to copy the words you said to your daughter onto a poster to hang in my childrens’ rooms. Thank you for this important lesson. We can start doing better today.
Leslie RC says
Rachel, this was lovely to read. I’m so glad you have decided to change, to give your daughter “room to breathe.” Your epiphany brought up some old pain and regret that I didn’t realize was still inside myself. Though my siblings and I had a wonderful, loving mom, she kept discipline through disappointment and shaming. A great report card with mostly As but one B merely brought a tap of the finger, and a “What’s this?” I learned that if I couldn’t do something absolutely perfectly, it wasn’t worth even bothering to try. THAT is a lesson which I still struggle against, and I know my siblings have the same problem.
You wrote: “…But what I was teaching them was that I could never be satisfied. I was teaching them to confide in someone else—someone who would be more understanding and less reactive.” Yes. So sad, and so true. My big sister became my confidant, the one I trusted with explaining the ways of the world to me. I knew she wouldn’t get upset or angry that I was asking questions about boys or drinking or a friend’s foul-mouthed mother. My mother’s feelings were constantly hurt as I got older and avoided confiding in her. She openly lamented my sister’s and my close relationship and secret talks that excluded her. Rachel, I’m glad that you are going to enjoy that closeness with your own daughter. You seem to have caught yourself in time. 🙂
Happily, once I was older and in my 20s, my relationship with my adored mom became perfectly open, finally. She was still shocked by some of our topics of conversation, but she learned to relax and embrace our new relationship status. I just wish I could have confided in her while I was growing up.
Rachel Stafford says
Dear Leslie, this is extremely helpful and hopeful to us all. I am grateful you took time to share your story. So much wisdom for us all to take in.
I always look forward to reading your learning lessons with your children. With a one and a half year old, I try and remember your words of wisdom day to day and it helps me stay grounded with what is truly important. Also, I absolutely love Citizen Cope – one of the bands my husband and I started listening to as our relationship first began. Love to you and your family, you are doing such a great job as a Mama and helping so many Mama’s out there going through the same struggles.
Laurie Stone says
Its scary what a huge responsibility parenting is. How the wrong words at the wrong time can make such a difference. But so can the right words at the right time. We all learn as we go. Thankfully most of us choose kindness.
How does your husband’s vision/practice of child-rearing fit into your hands free journey? I think it wonderful that you have become aware of perils of our high tech world and how it relates to parenting, and have this made the effort to change. Does your husband do the same? Me and my husband were raised very differently and consequently have different views on how to approach certain problems/issues. Just curious how you do it. Thanks!
Would love to hear the answer to this, if he doesn’t mind you sharing.
I am curious about this as well; there are two parents and typically not with the exact same parenting style. Parents have an unconscious habit to balance each other, i.e. as one is perceived to be soft, the other hardens and vice versa. If you are on the same page, how did you achieve that? TIA
Cathy Johnson says
Thank you thank you thank you! Your words resonate in my head what I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Time for change. You are a gift to parents!
Kristen Alcoba says
This is a very beautiful and insightful blog. Children are amazing and we as parents and grandparents need to remember that by putting unplugging while your children are in your presence.
I really needed this today. Thank you.
Tammy B says
I am terrible for eye-rolling, sighing and giving strange looks to my children when we have conversations. My oldest has even commented when I haven’t rolled my eyes or sighed, that he expected it from me. I really never thought that this was so bad until he brought it up. Mom guilt! Both of my boys are young adults but I need to try and stop this behaviour and maybe, just maybe, they will look at me in a different way. Thanks so much for this post today, Rachel!
Rachel, Thank you so much for you words. Your posts often really resonate with me and today was no exception. I needed to read these words in these exacts moments. Thank you again! You are truly supporting me in becoming the parent I am meant to be.
Michelle J Belcher says
I know this one had to have been very hard to write for MANY reasons. Thank you for sharing your truths and your soul with the world dear friend!
Kristin Shaw says
I loved this post so much, Rachel. You have a way of reminding me about my parenting habits without reprimanding or telling anyone how to do it, but reflecting on the things you have learned. And every post makes me a better mother and wife.
Love to you.
Hi, I’m a first time visitor here…. Thank you so much for sharing this! I had this page open for couple of days trying to find the time to read it. I’m glad I did. I have a big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, because I too have made a mistake in my teenage years and what my religious parents and relatives did destroyed me from the inside out. They crushed everything, every spark of life or the will live. I lived hell for years to come after they found out. It was not only parents, it was other relatives even who felt they had lessons to teach me. So they taught how unforgiving God is, how thunderous He will be in punishing me for my mistakes. That Jesus is too far to reach, and if I do crawl my way back to Him I have to shout and cry out my repentance for everyone to hear. That I’m no good for anybody now, that I’m dirty, I’m a shame. Each word burned another hole in my heart, with each word they dug my soul deeper in to the ground with their heals until there was nothing more to dig in.
I have my own family and kids now and every day is a struggle, as though I’m still picking up the broken pieces of my life, my heart, my soul. The words that were thrown in my face were of hurting parents but at the same time the most hateful that drove me to the edge. So I lived in agonizing pain, hating my self, feeling like a dirt worm, being disgusted with my self thinking any other person had so much more to offer in life than I did, which just lead to more mistakes.
Reading this, I realize that I have started to shame my toddler. I can’t believe I’m guilty of that, something I swore I’ll never do to my children. So thank you so much for this reminder and a wake up call.
Please, please write more on these topics, they are so important. Reading this was painful and I’m sure it will be on my mind for a couple of days if not months. I’m so glad you took your time to write this, now I have you to look up to for some guidance so i don’t make the same mistake with my own kids.
I’m so glad I took the time to read this. Your words are so motivating Rachel.
Erin Taylor says
Beautiful and insightful words, Rachel! And the way your live your life is so much in alignment with Dr. Shefali’s teachings. That is why I love to follow along with you and her. Thanks for your wisdom and congratulations on your book!
Roy Robbins says
Thank you Rachel. I know I shamed my own children who are now grown, and I’m sometimes doing the same with my two grandchildren who live with us. Lord help me to nurture and not shame.
By the way, do the leather bracelets fit male wrists? (I’m 6’3″ 250 lbs.) 🙂
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for your honesty and thoughtful response, Roy. The leather bracelets definitely fit male wrists. They are made long so people can cut them to fit comfortably. Thank you so much for asking and for sharing your hopeful prayer.
Roy Robbins says
Thank you for the blessing you are to me, and so many.
Roy Robbins says
Just ordered 3 leather bracelets, one for me, my wife, and daughter. My hope and prayer is that they will be a daily reminder to love and nurture and not shame. Thank you again Rachel!
Rachel Stafford says
It really touches my heart to imagine your family all wearing the bracelets and striving to create a loving and encouraging home environment. Thank you for blessing me with this gift.
Roy Robbins says
My entire life I’ve been unable to connect with my parents, and could never figure out why. I’ve always hid everything from them, since I could ever remember (so have my other siblings). It was always an “us against them” mentality, and we were all afraid of what might happen if they really knew us. This post opened my eyes – everything that you were saying about high expectations and being pushed for perfection was spot on. I never really thought about it, but I feel like this is at least a small part of the reason why I still can’t connect with my parents, or tell them the whole truth. Thanks for writing this post, it makes me feel more at peace knowing what may have caused the distance and gives me hope that maybe I can close it, one small bit at a time.
Kristina @ AllMomDoes says
Such a beautiful reminder that love and gentleness ALWAYS win the hearts of our children, and that choosing love and gentleness do not equal weak, ineffective, and lazy parenting.
This was wonderful. Thank you for sharing the vulnerable, difficult moment in your parenting journey to help the rest of us in ours.
GREAT post! Love it and all that you stand for! I feel blessed to have resources such as this to help me along in my parenting journey.
The place you moved to sounds fantastic! Can you share where this exists as lately I have a hard time believing that it does…
I am following your blog.But this is the first time I read the article completely. Each and every word…… it’s like gem to me. It shows my parents love towards me till date. Now I am mother of 2 kids. It also gives me how I have to move with my kids. How they can come to me and share their thoughts to me… this article has opened me to things…the love I receive and received from my near and dear ones. The unconditional love that to be given to others and my kids. Hope in future I read completely the post by you.
Nice. .. one made me to understand unconditional love I am getting …the love I have to give my kids…..
Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
I just wanted to leave a short reply to say THANK YOU for this post. I feel really strongly about not shaming or teaching through punishments. I one day hope that everyone will ‘TEACH THROUGH LOVE’!
PS I am in the UK, is the leather bracelet available to order here?
Rachel Stafford says
Yes, it sure is. Thanks for the beautiful comment.
what a powerful reminder to listen and love. I know I need to work on this more with my children. Thank you.
Jennifer McComb says
This is exactly what I needed today.
There are days when the space between the parent I want to be and the parent I truly am is so vast, so wide, so scarily far apart that i think surely my two young boys will grow up in a fit of resentment and despair. We have a 4 year old and a 2 year old. Both not following too many rules lately. Both like being the “budgie”. It’s a hard age, I know this … and I have to tell myself this. We have tried it all … time outs, to taking away toys you name it. All in the name of parenting and teaching respect right? Well it doesn’t feel right.
This morning was another hard morning, when he had just gained a toy back and almost immediately did something with it he was not supposed to. My husband did not handle this well. I cried and somehow found this blog post. You wrote these words : “But what I was teaching them was that I could never be satisfied. I was teaching them to confide in someone else…..” My son excels at preschool …. I have to wonder if its because his teacher is much more loving and less reactive.
Anyways, I am rambling as I sit here and reflect on the sadness the past two weeks have brought me as we have tried to “teach” our 4 year old a lesson in respect. I don’t know how to be where you are at. I can’t have deep conversations with my children. I can’t reason with them … they are just too young. Yet I know that to teach them respect I have to show it ….
Just still learning how to let them be children while still teaching them values like hard word, and respect. They are growing up in a generation of entitlement and it scares me as I see in my young boys.
Thank you for your words. They both broke me and lifted me up.
Rachel Stafford says
Jennifer, I commend you for this heartfelt and honest sharing of your life and heart. I have the tools to help you be the parent and person you are meant to be. Please write to me so I can give you a list of things you can do to create a more peaceful home and help the boys make better choice without shaming them. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You will get an auto response, but know that I will get back to you within a few days. There is HOPE. You are not alone.
Katie Paskvan says
This is article hit me right in the gut. I am 64 years old, have 5 siblings who range in age from 51 to 62. We all have a love/hate relationship with our mother (some more hate than love). Not one of us ever did anything right. She didn’t shout, didn’t call us names, just coldly disapproved. We were absolutely never good enough.
Three examples: Age 14, I think, I brought home my best report card ever, all A’s, except for one B. Mom had to sign the card for me to take back to school. She circled the B, and silently handed it back to me. I said, “But this is pretty good, isn’t it?” She said, “It’s ok.” 30 years later one of brothers asked me, “Did that happen to you,…or me?” It was so typical, it could have been any of us.
Age 8: At a YMCA swimming class, I nearly drowned. The teacher was reading a magazine and didn’t see me go up and down, up and down. One of the other little girls grabbed the hook thing and pulled me out. I puked water all over the side of the pool and had a headache I can still feel. The instructor, probably afraid he would lose his job, offered me anything I might want, candy from the vending machine, soda, blah, blah. I never told my parents. My dad always deferred to my mother, and she would never have believed me. Grownups were right, children were wrong; she was always right, we were never credible. We were ripe for abuse from other adults or older children, because she NEVER respected or believed what we said or felt.
One more: as a senior in high school we were required to write an essay about ourselves, our goals, our good qualities, things we would work on to improve our lives, and so forth. Not a bad project, but I was having an awful time with it. I should have known better, but I asked my mother what my good qualities were. She hesitated for the longest time, and then said, “Well…. you’re….. pleasant.” One of her favorite sayings was “Pride goeth before a fall”. What that meant was that her children should never,ever, be pleased with anything themselves..
There are old people in nursing homes whose families never come to visit them. These old people nice to the staff, they have friends, and nobody can understand why their children are so awful and ungrateful. I’m pretty sure there’s always a back story.
Incredibly, we’re all pretty good to her. But not good enough! Surprise! And you know what, she absolutely still believes, in spite of a few pointless attempts to talk to her about it, that she was, and still is, “teaching”, even “encouraging” us to be better people.
As I was reading your article I was hating your guts, even knowing that you’d seen the light. This is how raw it is, still, at the age of 64 Bless your heart for your insight and willingness to change. Your children are very lucky people.
Your story reads as mine does, I’m 34, and my mother – now not in my life anymore by my choice – has a common but not much admitted to, personality disorder called Narcissism. they don’t worship their image alone as the stereotypical Narcissist does, but they love and hate themselves and of course, project all of their venom onto their vulnerable and innocent children. Nothing is ever good enough, and the child is either trophy, competition or shame to her.
It was Never your fault as a child. we were innocent.
I urge you to do some research into this, a blog called “light’s house” is full of great resources.
Grieve for your lost childhood, and your hurt little inner child. You both deserve love and kindness now.
Blessings for your healing journey
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Amelia, for sharing your story so someone else is not alone in hers. Your words are powerful and healing. I wish you peace, dear one.
Debra Chiarello says
Rachel, so beautifully written and very touching. My 3 children are all grown now, and spread across the Country. Our visits are not as often as we’d like, but we treasure the times we have together. Reading essays like yours makes me long for a “do over”! Parenting is such a hard job, and most of us tried really hard to do our very best, while traversing through life with all it’s challenges and surprises. Sadly, the stresses of life can sometimes get the better of us, and we don’t always have the composure to respond in a perfect way! Our emotions can grab a hold of our logic, and our reactions are imperfect and regrettable. When this happens and after you’ve had a chance to cool off, apologize! Your children will understand, and a humble apology is a learning experience also. There were times (too many of them) when I allowed my anger , frustration or disappointment to get the better of me; and I rue those incidents with every fiber of my being. We are frail humans, with many faults. I can only hope and pray that my children know I have always loved them deeply, and that my motivations were founded in an honest desire for them to develop into responsible, self-sufficient, ethical and satisfied adults. My joy, is their happiness and contentment. I pray that their journey through this life is long, and that they experience moments that are amazing and abundant. That they remain humble and thankful for the smallest blessings. In those hours of darkness, I pray that they can find faith and strength to endure whatever comes their way. Most importantly, my children and grandchildren will always find comfort and a safe haven in our home – no matter how old they are! We may not always agree, but I will always love them with every ounce of my being.
Which book was the one that goes with this article I really need it…
Rachel Stafford says
Hi Kathy – HANDS FREE LIFE is the book that would elaborate on what is touched on in this piece. Thank you for asking.
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