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Not born to shame

15 February 2013

SOME people think that school is all about the three Rs. But, for a researcher at the University of Houston, Brené Brown, it is mainly about shame.

The present Government just cannot leave education alone. So, whether it is the marginalisation of the arts, a more pressured OFSTED grading system, or another overhaul of exams, teachers are not short of directives and discussion documents. But, whatever the edicts from on high, the paradox of the adolescent at school remains the same: a strong desire to define himself or herself in the world in a setting that may hinder rather than help.

The real concern for the pupil is not teacher-performance criteria, but the emergence of identity. At the age when you are most sensitive to the impressions of others, you are in a Lord of the Flies environment of cliques and small-time dictators, where labels are stuck on people freely and without care.

Professor Brown believes that shame is the consequence of this perfect adolescent storm. "Shame", she says, "is all about the unwanted identities and labels."

Shame tends to isolate rather than energise, making us secretive and brutal. As we learn how to hide things, we learn also to hurt others from the rage of our private shame. The belief that one can never quite belong is a terrible feeling for any child at school. And it can be terrible for parents, too.

Professor Brown notes how many parents of teenagers relive the shame of their own schooldays once their children experience the pain of not being "on the cool table", or not getting asked out, or not having friends in the playground. For some parents, she says, "it's like a secondary trauma," and one so painful that they find themselves unable to respond with compassion.

Instead of listening and saying something like: "It's hard, I know - I remember it myself - but you're stronger than you think," the reaction is more often: "Don't be so stupid. The world doesn't owe you a living. Toughen up a bit."

The degree to which young people take their fragile school identities into adult life will vary according to the latent resources for growth within them. But school is a formative time, the first moment away from home, when we begin to search for an identity in the world; and the quality of that experience, for good or ill, can live on for many years.

So it is helpful that we can read and write when we leave school, and helpful that we can add and subtract. Such understanding will open doors. But it is also important that we listen to the playground, the labels attached, and the stigmas felt. As Rumi said: we are a guest house, not a home, for our emotions. If we have noted shame's arrival, it is important that it is told that it cannot stay.

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