“Mommy, Mommy, watch this!” yells Huck Finn, propelling from the couch to the ottoman. Putting aside for a moment the fact that jumping on the couch is ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED, I’m struck by his ferocious and simple desire to just have me watch him.
He wants me to watch him do nearly everything. If he draws a speck on a piece of paper, he brings it proudly over to me to gush over. If he gets a paper cut, he runs to me to show me what happened and then unabashedly shows his Lightening McQueen bandaid to everyone in sight. If he makes a giant mess of dirt and playdough and Cheerios, he has to report it to me, not just so I can clean it up, but so I can see what he accomplished.
Little kids are like that. Tiny babies are even more like that. They want their parents, their friends and strangers at Chuck E. Cheese to see everything they do. They are proud of their accomplishments, as small as said accomplishments may seem to us grown-ups. They like to be seen. They have no shame.
When does that change?
Just minutes after my three-year-old yells at me to watch him and his couch-jumping antics, my five-year-old, The Professor, hides himself under a blanket on the couch. Something has upset him, and he’s hiding his face, telling me he’s “trying not to cry.” He’s just two years older than Huck, yet something has changed in him. He doesn’t want me to see him cry. He isn’t proud of his emotions. He wants to hide.
When did that change?
I’m a private person. I don’t like to cry in public, so I usually don’t. I prefer to cry in a dark room, by myself, with only a chick flick for company. I prefer to do yoga in my own home, where no one can see if I’m doing the poses wrong. When I’m in the middle of a project at work, I like to hole myself up in my office with the door closed until things are at a point where I feel they are presentable to others. I know, rationally, that it’s okay to let people in on my emotions, and to show my colleagues an unfinished work product – it’s just hard to actually do that.
I’m pretty sure I was once a little girl that ran to my mom and dad to show them all the cool things I did. I even recall a moment captured on video, when our family got a computer for the first time (just a few years after the fall of Rome, I believe). In the video, my tween-self gasped in excitement and exclaimed, “A computer! We have one at school and I know how to work it! I’m really good at computers!” My unadulterated glee and self-confidence was painful to watch as an adult, and I cringed at my bragging – but I was also struck by how sure of myself I was. How completely unashamed I was.
I think my tween-self could teach my adult-self a few things. To be comfortable in one’s own skin, to want to show every little thing off to the world, and to be outwardly proud of oneself are all admirable qualities that are somehow impeded over time by the world we live in. At some point, we learn to cover up our emotions, or to tone down the bragging in order to live a polite life of sweet decorum. It may be good for a well-behaved society, but is it good for us?
When do we learn shame?
Can we un-learn it?