We have a brain that has evolved into a higher level functioning brain than our more primitive animal and reptile counterparts. What is still true though is that we all (reptiles, animals in the wild, and humans) have the same hardwired, lower brain instincts and nervous system. This has various ramifications for us. One is that that we have an impulse to aggression that is instrumental to survival during times of life threat. It is not always realistically needed or useful in our human world, yet it is still very much a part of our hardwired primal instincts. There are obviously times when it is in fact extremely useful, but it kicks in at times when our life is not necessarily in imminent danger. But try telling that to the part of your brain that is just like a tiger, your dog, or a reptile’s brain. It is operating on instinct not reason.
The reality of our lower brain’s impulse to aggression necessitates our learning how to have these feelings but not act on them. This is a skill that takes time to learn during those years that our higher brain function is developing. It means that we need our parents, teachers, grandparents, and other caretakers to help us learn this skill in ways that are appropriate for the actual ability of our age. What I mean by this is having an understanding of what is realistically appropriate behavior for a baby’s level of brain development versus what can in fact be learned in a healthy way by a toddler or what can be expected from 12 year olds in terms of restraining their impulses.
There are very different ways to parent and teach. These styles will influence and be reflected in how each child’s behavior becomes shaped. If the teaching is done through tender, open-hearted guidance, this has a very different impact than when the teaching is done in a way that is physically violent. I’m using these examples that are at opposite ends of the spectrum of teaching styles to make my point. I’m not suggesting a particular parenting style here (although I definitely have an opinion about physical violence). Our brain becomes wired to behavior in a context. The environment is not irrelevant. It is critically important to the building of our sense of self and our ability to live in a social world. We can learn to feel mostly comfortable and at ease. We can learn to operate from fear and suspicion. We learn to be social creatures within the context of our environment and its impact on our particular in-born nature (e.g. sensitive, extroverted, etc.). What is basic, hard-wired human nature is part of the equation as well. The impulse to aggression is simply part of the wiring of the nervous system, and we also each have our own individual tendencies.
Parents have a diverse sense of appropriate behavior. We vary based on our cultures, our religious backgrounds, our socio-political beliefs, and so on. A variety of factors enter into our views on parenting. Ideally, no matter what our particular template for child rearing, we hope to find ways to help our children form into caring and responsible members of society. I want to suggest that shaming is not an ideal approach to this goal. Shaming lends itself to feelings of inadequacy and a negative sense of self. It can set up hidden anger and resentment and undermine the need to help children learn how to feel their aggression but not follow it.
The question then is how do we help children tame this instinctive impulse? It is not something to lose because it does have a valuable survival aspect. It is something to learn how to experience in a consciously registered way so that we can operate from thoughtfully determined action.
Sometimes when shaming has been a part of our home or school experience, we don’t realize how it has influenced the style of discipline we bring to parenting, teaching, and other contact with children. As parents, caretakers, and educators we can unknowingly bring a shaming energy similar to what we experienced when we are disciplining those in our care. Helping young ones learn to tame their impulses is a vital function that adults play in the lives of children. We are born with the blueprint for having and not acting on our impulses, but it is the adults in our world that teach us how to actualize the design. It is when we can utilize our own regulated physiological states for modeling and providing structure that we bring the possibility to children of developing their own ability to regulate and control their impulses.
If you find yourself behaving in ways that are more shaming than skillful guidance in taming, find someone who can help you start to rewire. The benefits are multilayered. Sense of self-worth increases. Better feeling connection with others. Kinder, gentler parenting and teaching skill. Children who develop a better understanding of the wild animal within can help us become empowered adults but not aggressive, overpowering animals.