How to Avoid Shame and Blame

Excerpted and adapted from What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children

Sometimes adults don’t mean to use shame and blame in their interactions with children—these approaches can sneak in when we are least expecting it. Statements like, “You should know better than that,” or “What were you thinking?” come to mind. When we become overly focused on a child’s behavior—what they do—and less focused on our relationship with them—who they are—we have gone off track. Below are four examples that are good ones to avoid and along with some freshened-up ways to approach a child that are more connection based.

You just never learn.

This phrase reminds me of the father in a great movie, Muriel’s Wedding, who has a habit of describing all of his children as “useless.” The main character has taken her dad’s shaming assessment to heart, but she eventually changes the way she sees herself—and changes her life for the better. If you give a child a limiting judgment as a starting off place, it puts her at a huge disadvantage. These are words that sting and can hinder emotional and intellectual growth. If a child is failing to learn a new skill or task, reassess your expectations. Talk to her about a repetitive mistake or omission she may be making: “I notice that every time you get undressed you leave your clothes on the floor. What do you think would help you to put them in the hamper?” This fosters learning and growth rather than shame and defeat. “You can do it” and “Keep practicing” are ways to speak encouragingly to a child whose efforts have not been successful thus far. Have realistic expectations, keeping personality and temperament in mind, and give her time.

What’s the matter with you?

Because a small child’s view of the world is so self-centered, this reaction to misbehavior only intensifies that. She may think, I don’t know, maybe everything! A critical question is likely to leave children feeling defective, unfixable. It’s better to respond to each situation specifically without questioning a child’s character. If you found your three-year-old cutting up her new pants with wild abandon, you might assume that something had indeed gone wrong. Take the scissors away, but then back up for a moment before accusing her. Recently she was playing in the sewing room while you used your scissors to cut fabric for a pair of pants. The reason for her actions is now a bit clearer. Remain calm and restate the boundaries: “Your scissors are for cutting paper, and only when a grown-up is there.” Sometimes there’s no reassuring explanation for children’s behavior— they just like to experiment. That’s small consolation when a budding scientist drips glue onto the cat’s fur! Talk about why this was not a good idea and clean up the kitty together.

This is all your fault.

It’s normal for young children to be self-centered, and they may readily believe that things are their fault—news coverage of Hurricane Katrina reported some children blaming themselves for this natural disaster. When things don’t go right, give kids clear feedback about their behavior and share your feelings with them: “I am frustrated that we are late to our appointment. Next time, we will go the first time I tell you we need to leave.” If you allow a child to distract you from leaving on time with his activities or preoccupations, it is actually your fault.

Because I said so.

We resort to this staple when a boy or girl won’t stop making demands. While such a non-answer may not be damaging, it’s curt and dismisses the child’s feelings. It hinders a loving connection between adults and little ones. A similar and often used line is, “Because I’m the grown-up, that’s why.” This may work when a child is three but is hardly a permanent solution. It’s more productive to keep open communication with children from an early age, even if this means extended conversations about family or classroom rules. When a difficult situation arises, explain your reason clearly: “We are not going to stop for ice cream because it’s late and we’re heading home for dinner.” If a child persists you can say, “I’m not going to change my mind, but I will listen to your feelings about it.”

Try to remember that a child is doing their best in any given situation with the tools (and still not fully functioning brain!) they have. Also, keep in mind that is it perfectly okay for a child to have strong feelings about a limit that is set. It’s a good idea to maintain self-care for yourself so you have the wherewithal to weather the storm of those emotions in a calm and loving way.

Originally a guest post at