When I was 6 years old I missed a few days of school at the start of term because we were on a holiday.
The first lunchtime when I was back at school and playing with my friends there was an argument. I don’t even remember what, but likely something about who could and couldn’t play with who. Perfectly normal child behaviour as we navigated friendships.
I got in trouble.
My teacher took me into her small office and I remember exactly what she said. She leaned in closely, narrowed her eyes, and spoke to me in a tone that let me know just how much she disliked me, “Everyone played nicely when you weren’t here, everyone got along just fine. You’re just a little bitch and a troublemaker, that’s what you are”.
The most heartbreaking thing was that I loved this teacher, she was one of my favourites, and I thought the feeling was mutual.
6 year old me was crushed and ashamed.
6 year old me was outraged at the injustice of it. It hadn’t been all my fault! I wasn’t a troublemaker.
6 year old me wondered if maybe what she said was true. Was everyone happier when I wasn’t around?
6 year old me wondered if I wasn’t actually a nice person.
6 year old me never ever got in trouble again. Never asked questions. Never had a detention. Never spoke up. Never volunteered for anything.
6 year old me often felt anxious about school. Was terrified of doing something wrong. Hoped to remain unseen.
6 year old me would always worry about not being a good friend, losing friends, not being liked.
6 year old me never told anyone what happened. Not my friends, not my parents, no one.
I don’t remember being a shy child, I didn’t lack confidence or self-worth. I think if anyone had of physically hurt me I would have told my Mum what they had done. Or would I? Shame is a powerful thing.
My teacher probably knew that. She wanted me to believe what she had said, because how could I then tell anyone what had happened? How could I admit that I was this horrible person? What if they believed I was too?
I only recently told my Mum this story. I still feel embarrassed about it. I feel scared to share this that people might think ‘I knew she wasn’t a kind person, that teacher was probably right’.
But she wasn’t right. I was a child and I didn’t deserve that. I deserved respect and love, not shame and control.
“I’ve never been to a shame-free school or organization. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I doubt it. In fact, once I’ve explained how shame works, I normally have one or two teachers approach me and explain that they use shame on a daily basis. Most ask how to change that practice. But a few proudly say, ‘It works'” -Brene Brown
I’d love to say that no children are shamed at schools these days, but it’s just not true. In fact, some schools use shaming purposefully as if it’s some kind of motivation. It never is.
The truth is, sometimes we don’t even know when it’s happening. Shame is a powerful silencer. Even if we believe our child would tell us, we can’t be sure of that. We have placed someone in a position of authority over them. We have encouraged them to trust them and believe what they say. It’s going to be very hard for a child to overcome all that and speak their shame out loud.
By no means am I saying all teachers are as horrible as that one teacher I had who should have known better. Although, I have many stories of shame I can think of during my 13 years of schooling. I understand that adults get frustrated and tired and lose their cool. People make mistakes they regret. I hope she remembers that one and regrets it too.
But, school is a place where shame is accepted, and sometimes even promoted. Children deserve better.
Children deserve to be loved and cherished every day. They deserve to spend their days with people who will support them and accept them for who they are.
They do not ever deserve shame. And we as parents do not have to put up with them having these experiences.
In our case, we have decided to opt-out of the system altogether. It is not acceptable to us. I have a 6 year old and the thought of something similar happening to her is devastating.
I recognise that in some cases that isn’t possible, but I would love for everyone, no matter what your circumstances, to take a stand against shame. To speak with teachers, schools, babysitters, coaches, minders, anyone who spends time with children, about shame. Ask them about their practices. Talk about it preemptively. Educate them about the damaging effects of shame. Tell them it is not acceptable to you for your child (or any) to be treated that way.
Speak to your children. Don’t just ask them ‘how was your day?’ Ask them what they enjoyed, when they felt happy, and especially if there were any times they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, scared, or upset.
Eliminate shame from your own home. Research and read and work towards respectful parenting.
Say no to shame.
Every child needs an advocate. Six year old me should never have had to wonder if those awful words were true.