Back up the Guilt, Shame,
Fear and Control Bus

21 July, 2021

Written by Angela Bush

Bachelor of Education (ECE), Diploma of Nursing, Diploma of Teaching (ECE)

Fear, Guilt and Shame

Many of us would have grown up with a parenting style that frequently leaned towards manipulative techniques such as guilt, fear and shame to get us to “do as we were told!”

The adults in our lives usually had the best intentions for us, wanting to raise obedient, grateful, responsible children who knew their place.

You know how it went…
  • Eat your dinner – children are starving in Africa you know!
  • Just wait until your father gets home!
  • If you don’t pick up those toys, I am going to give them to the poor children.
  • Do as you are told or you will get the wooden spoon!
  • You’re ok. It wasn’t that bad.
  • Look! Everyone else is doing it…
  • Why can’t you be more like Jo? She just walks in all by herself and gives it a go.
  • Your grandmother would not approve!

Now I am no psychologist, but even from a very arm chair psychology perspective, the trouble with this approach is that when we are raised with fear, guilt and shame we become adults who operate from a place of low self esteem, poor self discipline and an inability to self- regulate without confirmation or comfort from someone else. This can leave us vulnerable to unhealthy relationships. And ultimately to a continuous negative self-efficacy.

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Now that we are in a position ourselves of power with children, these subtexts will likely be embedded in our subconscious. And this ultimately influences our beliefs about children, our approach and need to have control and co- operation. Even if we are the most well intentioned, educated, kind, caring educarer, we will all have the influences of our own upbringing with us. This can mean we operate instinctively in similar ways when we work with children – using guilt, shame and fear in subtle yet controlling ways.

Magda Gerber in her infinite wisdom has given us an alternative way forward with young children that is focussed on supporting children to become self-regulating, confident and competent learners.

Our early childhood curriculum also gives us clear clues about what is important for children...

“To grow up to be competent, confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valuable contribution to society.”

Supporting children in healthy autonomy and avoiding being in control of children does not mean we swing to being submissive, lacking in discipline or have no rules and expectations. On the contrary, children (and us too) need to know what the reasonable limits and boundaries are. And of course, we are always going to keep children safe. But what we want to look for is allowing children to take those naturally occurring opportunities for self -determination in the every day moments.

Let’s watch out for those moments when our urge to be in control needs to be checked;

  • Meal time battles: Any time we feel the need to control how much a child eats, and whether they come to the table or not.

  • Play: How a child plays, with who, and with what, should be freely chosen and self motivated. When we interfere in children’s play, we take away their power in the one place where they can truly be free to explore, experiment and learn.

  • Conflict Resolution: Learning how to resolve conflict with others is a key part of a child’s social learning journey. We need to ensure children are safe, and can be a close support, but we do not need to resolve every conflict or be the referee.

  • Nappy changes: Let’s face it, nappies simply have to be changed. But when this happens can be negotiable (unless it is burning their bits!). Interrupting children engaged in free play is not necessary. We can invite, wait and then include children in these care moments.

  • What to wear: Why does it matter if the child wants to wear stripey stockings with rugby shorts and a cape? Ok so keeping warm is important, but children are perfectly capable of making their own choice about which item of clothing they want to use for this purpose.

As teachers we worry about fairness and being consistent. These are of course important virtues that we can do our best to achieve through creating limits and expectations that are clear and consistently applied for all children. However, let’s not be dogged and inflexible about this. Rules and limits (other than safety rules) need to be bendy enough that we are being responsive to the child in front of us, in this moment. The child that is tired, or needing a little more support today does not need a teacher stuck in the notion of “fairness at all costs!” Pick what really matters in any given moment and understand that it is ok to let some stuff go.

Children are constantly learning about themselves from the way we interact with them, speak to them and what we say about them in their presence. What we say, and how we react to children communicates powerful messages that they store in their subconscious.

It is all cumulative - so all those small comments add up and up and up. Until the child eventually believes what you have been telling them all along. Sadly they live up to our expectations after all!

Children in our care need us to be observant, responsive and respectful. They need support, guidance, suggestions, humour, and love to help shape their unfolding authenticity. They don’t need shame, fear, guilt and control. Let’s get off that bus!

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