When we began our adoption process for our first adoption, we were encouraged to learn as much about Chinese culture as possible. I knew a fair overview of its history from courses taken in college, and I knew something of the culture because one professor I had in college had lived and taught in China during a sabbatical year. One topic mentioned over and over was the importance of not causing someone to “lose face.” I really don’t know the full depth of what it means to cause someone to lose face but after four adoption trips, I know it is very tightly wound with shame. A child’s behavior can cause shame to fall on the parents within their community. More than a few conversations with ex-pats (US citizens living in China) revealed that parenting and indeed much of the cultural order was based upon shaming children so they won’t cause shame. I knew from my interactions with guides that being told the truth about a subject will only happen if it won’t cause anyone to lose face. Lying is OK as long as the end result is everyone is happy. The impression I always had is that it was fine to commit a wrong as long as you don’t get caught. The shame is not in the doing until you are caught, then there is shame. I know that on more than one occasion I rather smugly thought to myself, “I am so glad we don’t use shame in America to control children’s behavior.”
I was smug about it until last October when I ran into another mother who said her daughter came home from school the day before because her teacher had embarrassed my son in front of the whole class. My son, a 4th grader, had received a particularly low grade on a test and the teacher had made a rather loud comment telling him he’d failed. When I asked my son about it, he cried. He said he was embarrassed. I sent an email to the teacher telling him that his comment was overheard by other kids and that he’d embarrassed my son in front of his peers. The teacher apologized and said he would talk to my son about it. I thought that was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. A few weeks later, this same son came home and was angry. He said that his teacher told him he wasn’t a very good Christian because when the class was asked to vote on whether they would give up their PE session so another class could have it because they had missed their allotted time due to an assembly, my son and one other boy were the lone “No” votes. I sent an email asking the teacher refrain from passing judgement on my son’s faith since he (the teacher) had actually asked for a vote. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask right? You would think that this would be the end of it but a pattern of behavior on the part of this teacher continued throughout the year. My son was not the only collateral damage. His class was regularly told they were lazy, not as smart as the other fourth grade class, and slow learners, the last being said to them in frustration that his class at his other school last year learned this material “just like that” and he snapped his fingers. The whole year, I just told my son that these labels were not who he was, they didn’t define him, and that sometimes we have teachers who we just don’t like and we just have to get through it. The final straw of my patience came in early March.
One day in that first week of March this same son once again met me in the parking lot of the school with the words, “Mr. _____ say’s I am going to Hell” and then he promptly broke down in tears. Now, I should let you know right now this son of mine has been struggling with how he feels about God, and he has cause. The things he has had to endure the last few years make it very understandable. I knew he was struggling with anger toward God and I just kept encouraging him to keep his heart open. But in religion class that day at school, he was asked by the teacher what he would say to Jesus if asked to follow him, and my son said, “I don’t know. Maybe?” You want to know the correct response to that answer? It is, “Thank you for your honest answer. I am sorry you are struggling with your faith. It’s OK, even adults struggle. I will pray for you.” The response my son received? He was quoted the scripture in the Book of Revelation about Jesus spitting out those who are luke warm and them going to the fires of Hell. Well, needless to say, I sent another note to that teacher and I told him in no uncertain terms that if he EVER, EVER embarrassed my son in front of the class again or made a judgement about the state of his soul, I would report him, and possibly more. It hit me so strongly that my son, and a few others in the class were constantly being shamed in hopes that it would change their behavior. It did not. Instead it made my son’s grades in his favorite subjects plummet (this teacher was his home room and religion teacher as well as Math, Social Studies,and Science). Math and science have always been his best subjects.
You might be asking yourself why had I not gone to the principal? Well, it’s because I am “that parent.” You know, the one who is a Mama Bear, the one who has children with learning difficulties who is constantly in contact with the school to make sure that appropriate accommodations are being made for her kids. In the case of this particular child, he has an auditory form of dyslexia so reading, language, and spelling are a huge challenge for him. I am also an “anti-homework” mom when it comes to elementary age kids. I flat-out tell my kids elementary teachers we will work on homework for 30 minutes a night and no longer. I wouldn’t even do that except they go to a private school and I want them to remain in the private school so I don’t push the limits too much. But when you are a parent of kids with learning challenges, who work twice as hard during the day as “normal” students, you kind of want to give your kids a chance to just unwind and be kids. Actually, I think that is important for even “normal” students but I am just arguing my particular case here. I had an occasion or two when I posted on my personal Facebook page my thoughts about homework and summer bridge books, and my words got back to the principal and she expressed her “concern” about my attitude and how I was portraying the school in a negative light. I actually never mentioned the actual school name in my FB post and beyond that, MY FB page is just that, mine. She was not on my “friend” list so I can only assume that one of my so-called-friends ratted me out to her. So, no, it actually took a few other parents going to the vice principal to complain and mentioning the incidents with my son, before I had a conversation with the administration about it. I merely said, “the parent handbook say to take my concerns directly to the teacher so that is what I did.”
The truth is, it took me a while before I really twigged to the fact that this teacher was regularly using shame as his preferred tool to control behavior in the classroom, and motivate for learning. Only that was not the result. He has created a classroom environment where the students feel afraid to speak up, they fail tests and have test anxiety, and they hate school. Frankly, I can’t wait to see the back of that man forever. If the school ever decides to move him up to a higher grade, we will be leaving. And yes, he will be back again next year to torment another class of students.
Tomorrow I will write Part 2 and let you know what all this has to do with Shame Resilience and how to instill it in our children. I recently discovered the wonderful Brené Brown and her talks, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting and Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough. This woman, her research, and her talks are changing my life, and how I parent my children. You are going to hear a lot about her in the coming weeks because I wish I lived next door to her and could sit at her feet to learn. You see, shame is alive and well in America, just as it is in China, and that is sad.