If guilt is the more productive emotion, what do we do with shame? Picture: Pixabay

Washington - "You should be ashamed of yourself!" I'm guilty of saying it after one of my four children has done something wrong, particularly if I thought they didn't seem sufficiently chastened for the misdeed. 

Lately, though, I've wondered if children should be shamed. And is there a difference between "good" shame and "bad" shame?

The answer, I've discovered, depends on who you ask - and how you define the term.

"Shame is the feeling you get when you've done something wrong, and you think you should have known better," said April Masini, a relationship expert and author who also runs an online relationship advice forum. "It's derivative of guilt, and there is a place for it in parenting."

Other experts, however, disagree.

"In my experience, people use shame and guilt interchangeably, and I don't think that's correct," said Tanisha Ranger, a licensed psychologist. "Guilt is what we feel when we've done something wrong... Shame, on the other hand, is a deep and pervasive feeling that something is wrong with us."

Le Shepard, a therapist and mom of three who blogs at Mom*, agrees with Ranger. "Guilt is actually a very healthy emotion and it is what helps develop empathy. Guilt says 'I did something bad,' while shame says, 'I am bad.' Shame creates a negative self-image instead of recognising and feeling remorse for a negative action."

So if guilt is the more productive emotion, what do we do with shame? Some see it as a way to bring about change in a child's heart. "If we are talking about shame as a harrowing feeling, brought on by an awareness of something said or done that was improper, mean or dishonorable, then it can be an impetus for change," said Tim Thayne, a marriage and family therapist and author of Not By Chance: How Parents Boost Their Teen's Success In And Out Of Treatment.

Kaye Wilson, of ParentCoachOKC, also believes shame can be helpful in some circumstances. "We've lost sight of the value of feeling appropriately ashamed of things we do to others out of selfishness or pride or just plain meanness," she said. "There is an appropriate kind of shame, and I believe that this comes of parents overtly teaching that there is a right and a wrong way to behave."

Okay, maybe shame isn't all bad when it's an internal reaction, stemming from a child's knowledge that he hasn't behaved well. But what about when a parent, teacher or other authority figure imposes shame on a child? Does that harm the child's mental well-being?

"Shame shouldn't be used as a way of inhibiting children from being who they truly are," added David Ezell, the clinical director of Darien Wellness. "For example, I worked with an athletic dad who had a son who was not athletic. Dad shamed him with pejorative language and even punishment because the boy was not who Dad thought he 'should' be. The child suffered emotionally as a result, affecting his social relationships and grades."

The Washington Post