When we think about our children’s feelings, I believe that we too often overlook the importance of feelings of pride and shame. Children need to feel proud – and to avoid feelings of shame. This is a fundamental motivation, and it remains fundamental, throughout our lives. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the psychological development and emotional health of our children. (Pride is also important in human relations more generally. I was again reminded, while following the World Cup Soccer Tournament, of the importance of national pride.)
The shame and pride family of emotions may be our most recent, and most uniquely human, emotions. These feelings seem to be derived from expressions of social status – winning and losing, for example, in competitive encounters. Pride evolved from expressions of dominance – and still involves displays of dominance. The unabashed triumphant bragging of young boys and the more (or less) socialized exhibitionistic displays of victorious adult males (and the bragging of parents and grandparents about the accomplishments of their offspring) are instinctive expressions of pride.
When children are successful and feel proud, they look to others. When they fail and feel ashamed, they look away. This is in the nature of pride and shame. Pride is expansive, both in action and in our imagination. The feeling of pride is accompanied by an outward movement and a desire to show and tell others, to exhibit or show off. Shame contracts, in our posture and in our thoughts and imagination – in our setting of goals and in what we consider possible for ourselves.
Especially, children want their parents to share in their pride and to be proud of them.
Children experience feelings of shame when they suffer any social rejection; when they have difficulties in learning; when they are bullied, insulted, or taunted; and when they seek acceptance and approval from admired adults but are, instead, subjected to criticism or derogation. When children tell us that they are anxious, they are often anxious about the possibility of feeling ashamed.
Many experiences that evoke a feeling of shame (for example, experiences of exclusion or ridicule) are uniquely painful, and the feeling of shame, perhaps more than any other emotion, stays with us.
I can still recall, more vividly and poignantly than I would like, moments of shame from many years ago when, as a son (and as a father), I let my parents (and my children) down. Although I have long since been forgiven for these personal failures, my memories are still painful. Thankfully, I am able to put these moments in perspective; they are now more than balanced by moments of pride. In this way, we should also help our children put in perspective their own moments of embarrassment and failure.
A child’s feeling – her inner certainty – that her parents are proud of her is an essential good feeling, an anchor that sustains her in moments of discouragement, aloneness, and defeat. The opposite is also true. Parental scorn is among the most deeply destructive forces in the psychological development of any child.
I believe that we should let our children know, as often as we can, that we are proud of them – not only for the their accomplishments (the goals they score) but for their effort and their character, especially the good things they do for others.
And we should not be afraid to “spoil” them with this form of praise.