Passionate About the Westchester County Area
and the Moms Who Live Here

Shame Versus Guilt and WHY Words (especially with children) Matter

When your child does something wrong that needs correcting, what words do you choose?

As I’m entering my age of awareness, I’m becoming increasingly sticky with words, because words matter. They carry with them an energy that’s directly conveyed to the recipient. When the message is positive, it enlighten’ s our senses and brings delight. But when the message is negative, a weight can be associated with them, and often a length of time for which they are carried. Sometimes there are consequences for poorly chosen words, because you see, the truth is, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can deeply hurt me. Especially for a child who’s not equipped to deal with manage them. Words become the invisible scars that some carry for a lifetime.

Children are born with the desire to connect socially, but that doesn’t mean they understand the social conscience. That’s something that is best learned through the repeated experience of on the job training through good examples of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Most importantly though, it’s taught by allowing the child to correct their behavior rather than self. So let’s explore that a bit more.

When your child does something that’s not desired and needs to be corrected (or reprimanded), how do you best do that? Because you know it’s going to happen. At some point your little darling is going to mess up. When that happens, think about how and with what words you use to correct the wrong doing.

When it comes to disciplining our children, we need to pay extra special attention to the words we use choose, because you could be changing their whole perception of self worth in just a word. Let me give you an example of that by using words of shame versus words of guilt: If you say to a child something like, “Why do you always do that?” or “You are a naughty boy” or anything else that’s filled with a sense of shame behind the words used, you are sending a message that YOU are wrong or bad.

Now think about this same situation with behaviors that need to be addressed, but instead of using words filled with shame, you use messages filled with guilt. Yes, both shame and guilt are negative, but each one yields quite different results. For example, guilt would sound more like this: “Why did you do that?” or “You are behaving like a naughty girl” or whatever guilt ridden words are spoken to the party in question. It suggests you DID something bad. Very different results are achieved (or rather received) with the rephrasing of the correct word choices.

Think about what happens, when you hear “Shame on you?” versus “What did you do?” Shame is clearly filled with the notion that YOU not only messed up, but this is something from within you – the person. This is the label of who you are. But if you’re questioned (and guilted) about what you did through a behavior, action, or mistake of any kind, you realize that it’s not a socially acceptable thing and it’s not that you ARE the wrong, but what you DID was not desired for the social collective. And so you put it in your mental files and (hopefully) alter your behavior moving forward.

We all need to be equipped for the lives we live, if we want to live vibrant lives. Emotionally literacy, which is our ability to not only articulate feelings, but discern the spoken word wisely (be it ours or others) is a HUGE part of that process. Understanding something as basic as the difference between shame versus guilt is an important component of that development. Giving that gift to our children is priceless.  We do that by bringing awareness to the words we choose and knowing where and how they land. That’s how to begin giving that gift, because it matters – words matter.


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