My four-year-old and I were visiting my dad at his office the other day. As we were leaving, he walked down the hall with us and started heading towards the bathroom. In a loud, clear voice, my daughter asked, “You going pee, Grandpa?” There were a few other people standing around and they chuckled. My first instinct was to tell her that we shouldn’t point out other people’s bathroom needs in public, but knowing how sensitive she is to being told she’s made a mistake, I stayed quiet and waited to see how Grandpa would handle it. He smiled at her and remained non-committal, neither confirming nor denying his need! Her question didn’t really get answered, but as we walked away she had a bounce in her step and I knew that her heart was okay. I’m confident that she will soon learn not to publicly announce people’s bathroom needs!
I wonder, though, whether I am as confident that I will be able to un-learn those instincts that would shush her and point out her errors in front of other people. It’s something I struggle with, these feelings of embarrassment that drive me to respond in less than desirable ways. Whether it’s a meltdown in the grocery store, a display of defiance at church, or a poorly timed observation, I too often find myself thinking about what other people are thinking instead of what my children need.
If I’m embarrassed, I’m unlikely to recognize their behaviour for what it is: an unmet need. Honestly, I’m more comfortable thinking of meltdowns and defiance as misbehaviour that needs to be disciplined rather than as needs that need to be met with equal parts nurture and structure. The more we learn about our children, though, the more we are realizing that what we used to think of as misbehaviour is actually an opportunity for us to meet a need and connect with them. The correction will come, but often it needs to wait until the need has been met and my child and I are re-connected. Sometimes their needs are physical – hunger, thirst, exhaustion, sensory overload – and other times their needs are emotional – unexpressed sadness, fear, and frustration. Whatever the case, I will not be able to see past the behaviour to the need if I am blinded by my own embarrassment.
So what is at the root of being embarrassed by our children? What is driving this blinding flood of emotions? Embarrassment is all too often a manifestation of shame, and if we can learn to see it for what it is, then we can take steps to own it and deal with it.
When my children are not behaving as I would like them to and I feel embarrassed, I am actually experiencing shame because I am afraid that other people are judging my worth based on my kids’ behaviour. Since I don’t enjoy feeling worthless, I am tempted to transfer my shame to my children by communicating my embarrassment to them and using shame to motivate them to behave more appropriately. Of course, this is a short-term solution at best. I may achieve better behaviour in the moment (or I may not), but am I really okay knowing that I have contributed to my child’s own feelings of shame?
As an adult, I recognize that I have carried a lot of shame around in the form of insecurity and fear; this is not a burden I want to place on my children. Part of my journey in the last while has been learning to rest securely in the fact that my identity is rooted in God’s great love for me. My abilities as a parent do not determine my worth, nor does the behaviour of my children. As I practice resting in this truth, I find that I am better able to focus on my child in those difficult moments and have become less distracted by my own fear and embarrassment.
One of my desires as a parent is that my children will know deep, deep down in their souls that they are precious and loved. It will be difficult for them to believe this if they think they’re an embarrassment to me. So I must continue to work to identify the ways in which I am motivated by shame, and fight against those tendencies with the truth of my identity as a deeply loved child of God. Then I will be free to teach my children about their true identity, their great worth and preciousness, especially in those moments when it would be easy to teach the very opposite.