The Educational Use and Abuse of Shame

Published by — Conscience isn’t innate.  We learn it.

Shame.  A feeling we all hate.  A subject we avoid.  Our faces flush when we can suddenly see ourselves being the sort of person even we don’t like.  Guilt is also unpleasant, with regret and remorse about something we did, a hurtful action.  Shame is “I am bad” as opposed to “I did something bad.”

When I was in graduate school, I was so clever as to make people laugh at a fellow student who often spouted impossibly-abstract ideas that I ridiculed.  But in a seminar one day, while victoriously scanning the amusement I’d caused — along with his pained forbearance — I saw myself as a camera might.  He’d never been anything but respectful and kind to me.  I was mortified — so red-faced people asked if I were all right.  I didn’t have the decency to apologize to him, then or later.  But henceforth I was keenly aware of my sharp tongue.  I reined it in, not just for poor Andy — if you’re out there, I’m apologizing now — but for all those who might be material for one of my cheap jokes.  I’m still ashamed.

But that’s the point.  If you can see your own bad behavior, that yucky shame is likely to guide you towards changing the behavior.  Helping people change their own behavior is the goal of all real discipline, a word that means “to teach.”  So whether you see your obnoxiousness on your own, as I did in that seminar, or by empathizing with those you’ve harmed or offended, shame pushes you to behave in socially-appropriate ways.

The renowned Australian criminologist John Braithwaite takes this point even further in his 1989 book Crime, Shame and Reintegration:  shame is how we acquire conscience.  Conscience isn’t innate.  One day we push our friends too hard, tease too viciously, and suddenly they want nothing to do with us.  Actions have consequences.  Braithwaite’s still-fascinating book argues that a healthy criminal justice system helps offenders see themselves through the victim or community’s eyes.  If they feel shame and take responsibility for their actions, they develop conscience and can be reintegrated in their communities.  (I’m hoping to see Braithwaite in July at a Vermont Restorative Justice conference where he’s a keynote speaker.)

My question to him is:  Given shame’s intrinsic lack of appeal, how can we help people see that it’s like a powerful interpersonal drug that can be restoratively tonic or fatally toxic to the human spirit, depending on how it’s used?

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming.  Modern research shows indisputably that when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.  I think the self-esteem movement produced a lot of anti-social behavior.

According to Braithwaite, learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family.  Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.  A strong foundation of love gives corrective power to the frowning.

But other families dole out punishment and humiliation as though that will somehow produce good behavior.  Braithwaite’s research shows that such families are “associated with later delinquency,” because the parents do all the work of controlling behavior.  If authorities keep humiliating, hurting, coercing, forcing the behavior they want to see, they’ll have to keep at it.  The kid isn’t learning internal controls.

Our super-punitive culture overuses prisons, school suspensions and expulsions, and all manner of kicking one another off the island, so to speak.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 40 percent of the world’s prisoners.  That punitive mindset trickles down to schools, to families, and finally to the kids themselves, fostering bullying.

Americans maintain a powerful, deep, abiding faith in punishment.  But shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil.  I’ll be curious to see if Professor Braithwaite has advice about how punitive Americans can finally see ourselves and the effects of our harsh practices.  A good, strong prick of chagrin might teach us to handle shame carefully, effectively, productively.  God knows it would be a favor to the kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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