Lessons in Shame

Earlier this week, I visited a science museum with my daughters. We happened to look at an exhibit on America’s oil resources that included a map showing shale oil deposits. The states were outlined but not labeled. As I stared at the map of my homeland, trying to identify the various squares, rectangles, and blobs, I was reminded of how I still somewhat struggle with U.S. geography.

I find my difficulty with locating certain states (hello, Midwest!) to be embarrassing, maybe even a little shameful. After all, wasn’t there a TV show that made fun of adults who couldn’t answer questions likely to appear on a fifth grader’s homework?

Many of us are familiar with educational shame.

We trudged through school struggling with certain disciplines, yearning for math class to end so that we could head into English class where we felt more confident and competent. Or perhaps our experience was the opposite, and we would have happily solved a hundred equations instead of being forced to write an essay. We may have been labeled as “behind” in a certain subject and told we needed to work harder. Yet instead of prodding us into improvement, such admonitions just made us want to avoid the subject and cling to what we were already good at.

When given a choice between working on something difficult or preserving one’s self-esteem, nearly everyone will choose the latter.

I believe this is why so many students hate math or can’t find enjoyment in reading: at one point or another, they became convinced they weren’t any good at these endeavors, so they stopped trying. Trying, in the context of low test scores, negative labels, and perhaps even teasing from peers, was simply too risky. Too shameful.

As I embarked on homeschooling and began studying various philosophies of education, I began to question whether learning, even learning subjects that were quite difficult, need involve any embarrassment or shame whatsoever. What was the point of placing children in a learning environment that only seemed to reward easily coming to the right answer? Maybe wrong answers and stumbling were sometimes a necessary, natural step in discovery. Perhaps providing children with a safe place to experiment and to fail without shame was as critical, or even more so, than teaching them the three R’s.

What if I had been able to play around with maps the way my own children do, learning history and geography side by side, being fascinated by Washington’s strategy of crossing the Delaware at night or tracing my finger along Lewis and Clark’s trek westward? What if math had been presented as a challenge that I could tackle at my own pace? What if I had felt joy when it finally clicked and I grasped the lovely logic of numbers? What if learning happened for learning’s sake and not just to raise the peak on one’s standardized test summary graph?

As homeschoolers, we have a unique opportunity to break the cycle of shame and avoidance that all too often accompanies learning in our society. We have a chance to say to our kids, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together” instead of feeling embarrassed that we aren’t experts at everything.

We can let go of the misguided notion that quickly regurgitating facts equals intelligence. We can marvel at the workings of our children’s growing minds as they work out an equation rather than chastising them for not arriving at the answer quickly enough. We can learn and laugh about the gnarly historical roots of our English language as our kids struggle with some of its more absurd spelling patterns.

We can sympathize with our kids when some things are harder to learn than others. We can put some subjects away for a day and come back to them when our kids are feeling refreshed and determined.

As adults, we can let our kids observe as we struggle to master new recipes, difficult home repairs, or any new skill that requires hard work and persistence. 

Most importantly, we can work to let go of our own educational shame and strive to never teach it to our kids in the first place.


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