Bad Fruit: The Role of Shame in Parenting

Sex trafficking probably wouldn’t top anyone’s list of appropriate mealtime conversation topics, but a couple weeks ago I found myself discussing just that with a police officer over sandwiches.

While taking a break from organizing his children’s playroom (I work part time as a professional organizer), I sat down for lunch with him and his wife. Eventually the more innocent subject of Netflix binging turned towards a recent child abduction in the area. Between bites the husband, we’ll call him “Mark”, explained that over the years he’s had the difficult job of telling dozens of parents that something bad has happened to their child. And many of those parents responded the same way to the news: “I taught them better than that”.

Before I delve further into the touchy subject of child rearing, I should insert a disclaimer: I don’t have kids. However, I do plan to be a mother one day, and when I imagine myself navigating parenthood, one of the biggest questions I have is how to best raise a child in a sex-obsessed culture, where children are exposed to damaging sexual images and influences at increasingly younger ages.

Mark told me that he has often been asked by parents how they can protect their children from becoming sexually exploited and abused. His answer? You can’t. He tells them that all they can do is try to be present in their children’s lives. He went on, “Instead, we teach our children that sex is a shameful thing that can’t be talked about”.

Author and founder of Authentic Relationships International, Gene McConnell, described as “one of America’s foremost experts on shame”, makes a distinction between healthy and unhealthy shame. McConnell says that healthy shame looks much like guilt; it signals to you that you’ve done something wrong. On the other hand, unhealthy shame tells you not that you’ve done bad, or that bad things have been done to you, but that you are bad.

So how do I, as a Christian, instill in my future children a Biblical understanding of sexual morality, while also creating a safe space for them to communicate freely their fears, failures, questions, and insecurities when it comes to sex?

In an interview on the Exodus Cry podcast, McConnell offers a template—what he calls “shame-free-zone parenting”. The key, he says, is to affirm to one’s children “that they are someone of value, God created them…their identity is not their struggle”. Once you’ve assured them of their self-worth, “[you] can address the depravity, [you] can talk about the dysfunction, because [you’re] not attaching it to who they are”.

In our post-sexual revolution culture, there is little room made for the positive shame McConnell endorses. On the other hand, the kind of condemnation observed by Mark is a long-standing, damaging problem in religious communities. When it comes to navigating this cultural battleground, a nuanced picture of shame can do more than benefit our children, it can reshape our society into one of openness and understanding.

— Maggie

Proverbs 31:8-9