McNerney: Embarrassing Our Kids on Purpose

By Neil McNerney

We, as parents, often inadvertently embarrass our kids. During our recent college tours, I witnessed at least five incidents when students would whisper to their parents: “Don’t ask any questions!” They were certain that anything that came from their parent’s mouth would be obvious and embarrassing. I began wondering what would be the most embarrassing question that a parent could ask during such a tour: “Excuse me, but my daughter is lactose intolerant. Can she have a roommate who won’t bring dairy into the room?”

If you have spent any time on social media the past few years, you have probably seen the trend of parents intentionally embarrassing their kids. It’s often good for a laugh by anyone who has either embarrassed their kids or anyone who was embarrassed by their parents in the past.

But let me tell you now: Don’t do it. Don’t intentionally embarrass your children. Children, especially teens, find nothing funny in embarrassment.

There are many challenges to growing into an adult. One of those challenges is learning how to fit in, yet at the same time learning to be their own person. During the years from 10-20, the focus is much more about fitting in than it is about being their own person. When a parent intentionally embarrasses their child, the child rarely takes it as just some gentle playfulness. It produces one of the most difficult emotions for children to process: humiliation.

Our kids don’t feel embarrassed. They feel humiliated. Humiliation, in my opinion, is more powerful than embarrassment. It takes over our whole mind and body and all we want to do is to hide and be invisible. I bet that you can clearly remember three or four embarrassing moments from your childhood. We remember those times because they are seared into our memory. There is absolutely no benefit to parents searing additional bad events into our children’s long-term memory.

These days everyone can take a photo or a video of anything at any time. Just because you carry a camera on your phone at all times does not mean you should use it all the time. If you take a photo of your child, especially your teen, they will want to see it immediately. Let them. In all likelihood, they will also want to delete the ones that they don’t like. Let them. If they don’t want you to post something online about their lives, don’t post it.

Here’s a top 10 list of things parents do that (intentionally or not) embarrass their children in public:

  1. Singing, and especially dancing.
  2. Being too loud in public.
  3. Wearing embarrassing clothes.
  4. Trying to be cool.
  5. Disciplining your child.
  6. Treating them like they are little, or fragile.
  7. Using nicknames, especially “cute” ones.
  8. Telling embarrassing stories.
  9. Asking their friends too many questions.
  10. Hugging and kissing your child.

Keep in mind that many of these items on the list would be fine in private, and many kids would be OK with some of these in public. It’s not an exhaustive list and might actually be a good dinner conversation to have your kids develop their own top ten list.

There is no parenting benefit to having our kids experience embarrassment. Trust me, there will be enough experiences in their daily lives to learn how to overcome humiliation. We don’t need to pile on additional challenges for them. Will we still end up embarrassing our kids unintentionally? Absolutely, but we don’t need to do it on purpose.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.” He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

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