Understanding Shame, in “No, David!”

I don’t like to read the book, “No, David!”, by David Shannon. I can’t stand to hear myself in that grouchy mom having to face cleaning up another huge mess. But kids love it. They want to read it over and over. Kids understand why the mommy is yelling at little David, and they listen intently, scandalized. They understand quite well that his behavior is unacceptable.

When a kid does something that another kid doesn’t like, very often the kid knew that the other person did not want sand thrown at them/to be hit/their blocks knocked over. They have been told a hundred times that people don’t like to be hit. They know. So why does a child still choose to act on that impulse, when they know it will not be well received?

I think that sometimes, kids who have a hard time controlling their bodies and feelings (staying in their “Green Zone”, if you’re a Dr. Tina Bryson fan), have heard time and time again our “No”s. They hear it. They know the behavior we expect and the behavior that makes us frown and come over and get down low for another little talk (or, when I have neglected to feed myself and I can’t be nice anymore, kind of a loud, impatient little talk). They lost it, and did whatever they did, and they know it. And then kids are left dealing with their feelings about what they’ve done, and that part is bigger and harder than the original feelings that had the kid lose their cool in the first place.

Because kids understand the behavior we expect from them, but so often fall short of it, they begin to hear an internal message of, “I am bad”. Viewed through the lens of the foundational developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, children of this age are sorting out an internal crisis, which he described as, “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt” (p. 251, in Childhood and Society). Essentially, it’s time for kids to try things on their own, from buttoning their sweater and using the potty, to making friends and playing in cooperation with other children. When our child is potty training and chooses to stay at the train table even though we can see they need to use the potty, we try to convince them to go. Sometimes it works, and sometimes we have a little accident to clean up. But we highly evolved parents know not to shame children for potty accidents. They are still learning, and they all figure it out eventually.

Yet, when our child makes a mistake in making friends or playing with other children, we really want to be clear that it’s not okay to hit, you must ask before you take that toy the other child is using, and so on. Of course we do. We are teaching our values, just like we coach a child doing a pee-pee dance that it’s time to use the bathroom. And they hear us. They get it.

I think the missing piece on our end, sometimes, is connection. We don’t want that behavior, we don’t understand why this is happening, and we as adults become disregulated and unfocused. We feel sadness and anger, and shame and doubt of our own, because somehow this child in our care still did this thing we don’t like. And kids can see our unhappiness. A kid who just did a thing they know they weren’t supposed to do is already feeling ashamed, and our negative reaction confirms their feelings. Over time, these experiences build up and create a story in the child’s mind that maybe they really are a bad person. They are afraid, because they can’t control it all the time, and the fear and shame swirl up and make anger, which has kids act out again and again. It’s harder to stay cool once you’ve been telling that story about yourself.

And that’s why developing relationship, and building connection, really helps a child who is feeling overwhelmed like this. That’s the work we do at our school. It’s slow; it doesn’t snap kids back into line like corporal punishment is purported to do, but I think we can all agree that the end result is super worth it. We are helping build kids up, because we know, we know, that they are not bad, they are just still learning. We are feeding kids resilience. We are telling them, in words and in actions, “I know you can do this. Let’s try it again”

JocelynNeil Symes