Teaching Children About “Shame”

We were shopping in Kiddy Palace and while Ben was paying for our purchase, Phoebie wanted to look at the toys. I went with her.

There were some potty-training seats and chairs nearby and while we were there, a boy who looked about 3 years old came over.

“I want to sit on the potty chair,” he told his mother, and started lifting one chair off the tall pile of many. He then put the chair on the floor and was about to put his little bum on it when his mother said,”You are big boy, and you still want to sit on the potty chair? Shame shame. Shame shame, big boy. You don’t need that anymore.”

The boy looked a little shocked and the smile he initially had on his face gave way to a look of what looked like embarrassment. He looked at Phoebie, who was nearby, and quickly walked away.


A group of little kids are playing together and one of them innocently lifts up his shirt. An adult sees it and says, “Eee… Shame shame. Put down your shirt.” The child looks a little shocked and quickly puts his shirt down.


I don’t know who else grew up in a similar setting but growing up, I remember the grown-ups around me would use the term “shame shame” or “liu liu siao”, a term in hokkien, to stop me from doing something they think is shameful or embarrassing.

No child knows what a word means until they hear it repeated often enough for them to understand. It’s like how they learn who their Papa or Mama is. They hear “Papa”, and they see this man who is always associated with this word. They hear “Mama”, and they see this woman who is always associated with this word. Over time, they learn who Papa or Mama is.

The same way, they are taught the meaning of shame when that word is repeated every time a certain kind of scenario occurs. But is the scenario really what shame means?

Dictionary.com defines shame as:

20140531-170100.jpg Looking at these definitions, I wonder how much of what children do actually fall into these categories.

Sure, we want our children to learn that they have outgrown certain things, or that some behaviours are not so desirable, but is there a better way to tell them that than simply “shaming” them?

When I think back about my childhood and how the word “shame” was so loosely used by the grown-ups around, it made me realize how that had a certain amount of impact on my self-esteem as a child. It didn’t help that the word “shame” was usually accompanied by expressions like “Eee…” or “Aiyo…”, and the shaking of the grown-ups’ heads, with a look of what seemed like disgust or disapproval. Did I really do that many “shameful” things as a child?

Is there a better way to tell young children what not to do, other than saying “shame shame”?

Could the mother we met at Kiddy Palace have said something along the lines of “Yes son, that’s a potty chair but you know what? You’re a big boy now, and big boys don’t need the potty chair. Come, how about we go look at something else?”

Could the adult who saw the child lift up his shirt have said something like,”Are you feeling warm? Is that why you lift up your shirt? Now I don’t want you to catch a cold, so how about we put your shirt back down?”

The message is sent across and the children are not shamed for what is beyond the definition of shame itself.

Because of how I grew up and how I feel about the use of the word “shame”, I am very mindful not to use that word loosely on children.

Sure, this is my very own opinion, but perhaps it is time for some grown-ups to rethink how they use the word “shame” so loosely on children and the things they do. I’m sure there are other ways to explain to children than simply saying “shame shame”.