with

Mike Bellah

Nothing is quite as ominous to the ears of a 10-year-old as the sound of breaking glass, especially when you are the breakee.

 

 

 

 

I remembered all the broken windows in my own life, all the times I had stupidly continued behavior that I knew was either unwise, unethical, or both.

 

 

 

 

Consistently shaming a person--telling them they are bad or stupid or irresponsible--will not change them. It only will reinforce their negative view of themselves; it only will perpetuate the behavior.

A Broken Window

My life-changing encounter with shame came about 15 years ago on a lazy Saturday morning in June. My wife and I had just finished putting away the breakfast dishes and were getting dressed for the day.

Outside our bedroom window we could hear our 10-year-old son Jon playing catch with his friend Brian, their enthusiastic chatter only interrupted by an occasional thud when the missed ball connected with the brick exterior of our home.

Each time this happened I would raise the window, remind the boys that hardballs and glass windows don't mix, and ask them to move to a safer place, which they would do, for a few minutes.

Nothing is quite as ominous to the ears of a 10-year-old as the sound of breaking glass, especially when you are the breakee, especially when your dad is standing red-faced in the window sill demanding an immediate conference.

I wish I could say that I always counted to 10 when my children misbehaved, that I, therefore, always delivered measured discipline commensurate with the offense. But such was not the case, and this occasion promised to be no different. How could the boy be so stupid as to keep throwing the ball near the window when he must have known it would eventually connect? How dare he so blatantly and egregiously defy his father's command! What he needed was an immediate spanking.

Then--alone now and face-to-face in my office--I looked into my son's eyes. What I saw there would forever change the way I viewed my children's aberrant behaviors. What my son's tear-filled eyes revealed that day was not disobedience, certainly not defiance, not even guilt. What I saw in those sullen, down-cast eyes was shame--intense, unmitigated, raw shame.

And, most importantly, I saw more than the shame of a 10-year-old. For somehow the experience pricked my own conscience. Suddenly, I was not only my son's father, but his peer, his co-struggler, a fellow-sinner. How could he indeed? I remembered all the broken windows in my own life, all the times I had stupidly continued behavior that I knew was either unwise, unethical, or both.

My son didn't get the spanking. What he got instead was an overdue and prolonged hug from a father who loved him, who empathized with his pain, who understood from personal experience how to deal with shame. Yes, my son needed to admit and apologize for the wrong. Yes, he needed to pay for the window (it took several weeks of allowance and some extra jobs), but mostly he needed to renew and recreate his vision of himself.

For shame is more personal than guilt. Shame tells me not only that I did a bad thing; it tells me I am a bad person. I didn't just break a window; I am a window-breaker.

And while shame is helpful as an important first-step on the way to moral restoration, it turns toxic if it continues too long. Consistently shaming a person--telling them they are bad or stupid or irresponsible--will not change them. It only will reinforce their negative view of themselves; it only will perpetuate the behavior.

Jon will turn 25 this month and I am so proud of him. A college graduate with a good job, he has grown into a responsible adult with an engaging sense of humor and a marked empathy for the less fortunate--not too shabby for one of us exwindow-breakers.

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