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I was recently out with two of my kids, browsing a local Farmers Market when I heard a toddler cry out, followed by audible screeching from a distraught parent. Though I hadn’t seen the infraction, the subsequent reprimand was loud and public and had visibly induced discomfort from onlookers. The look of shame on the child’s face made my heart sink, and I looked away to reduce the impact. Public shaming hurts.
As a mother of four, I am no stranger to the many wrong turns our kids can make, and in turn, the many wrong responses we can have. Despite our best efforts, they sometimes struggle with good choices when they are out in the world. As they grow older, their “world” expands to include social media and online chat rooms. We teach our children to be fair and kind out on the playground and often assume they will take these lessons into virtual spaces. What we are seeing more and more clearly now is that they are not. Not always, anyway.
Rav Berg said, “The hope for our future generation in particular, and the world in general, always lies with the children of any period. They will become the future adults of tomorrow. And, as the young are reared, so too will they influence the events to come.” Kabbalists teach that our children learn from us. I believe there is a connection between how we teach our children about accountability and how they behave in online spaces. More specifically, how we honor the private experiences of our children sends them a very clear message about how they should honor the private experiences of others.
A few years back, a trend gained attention as parents posted pictures of their toddlers crying accompanied by the ridiculous (by adult standards) reasons for their tears. I’d be lying if I said I did not find this a bit funny. Fellow parents LOLed all over the internet, due to an image of a two-year-old in mid-scream followed by the words, “His instant oatmeal was not, in fact, instant” Every caregiver who has ever been exasperated by the irrational demands of their child felt validated. It hits pretty close to home. And we laugh thinking, Thank goodness I’m not the only one!
However humorous, these images are shaming and contribute to the attitude that our children’s feelings and experiences do not matter because they are not big peoplegrown adults yet. It goes beyond a tongue-in-cheek blog; I’ve seen videos posted on multiple platforms that parents have posted of them shaming their own children, claiming that “the punishment fit the crime” or “they will never do that again.” Our children are fully human (no matter how small) and deserve the dignity of not having their less-than-best moments plastered all over social media. Ask yourself, what is the difference between sharing an embarrassing moment of your child’s or a stranger’s? In the big picture, very little.
Something about sitting on the other side of a screen leaves kids (and grown-ups) feeling protected, even anonymous, which can open the door for words and actions they would never embrace in person, like bullying, hate speech, and public shaming. Kabbalistacally, public shaming is akin to lashon hara, or evil speech. When we open our mouths to share negative words about someone else, they go out into the world and take on a life of their own. When we use lashon hara, or negative speech, we create a shell of negativity around our soul, which prevents any Light we draw through our spiritual work from entering. Negative speech prevents us from sharing or receiving Light. This teaching is unsettling, considering how easily and thoughtlessly we share information about our own children and others.
Some claim that there are times when public shaming can be okay. On his show Last Week Tonight, television personality John Oliver said, “When it’s well-directed, a lot of good can come out of it. If someone is caught doing something racist or a powerful person is behaving badly, it can increase accountability.” That’s fair. But I wouldn’t call that public shaming. That seems more like speaking out against bigotry and unethical practices to me.
To be completely straight forward, whether it’s online or in- person, shame doesn’t work. As shame researcher Brené Brown explains, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” By shaming our children, we are sending them the message that because they have messed up, they are bad kids and deserve less than all the beauty reserved for them in this lifetime. We know this isn’t true. However, children can so quickly adopt this mindset; it can take years — decades even — to undo. Furthermore, many kids begin to so wholeheartedly believe they are “bad” that they begin to give up on being “good.” Why try when you’re just going to mess up again anyway?
The problem with public shaming is that once information is shared, it exists in the world and cannot be revoked. It doesn’t matter if the information is false, exaggerated, or only partially true; it is out there. Therefore, the person (child) at the center of the shaming cannot control it. Even if new truths emerge or apologies are said, the original words have already reached too many eyes and ears. As kabbalists teach, these words cannot be erased.
The truth is, our world includes the internet; a place so vast and continuously changing that children, as well as adults, are still learning how to navigate virtual interaction with compassion and empathy. But, if we can better model what it means to show unconditional respect and kindness towards others, our children may have a better idea of what that means to lead with love in all spheres in which they live, learn, and connect.