Privilege Blog

Earning The Right To Scold, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:29am


In retirement, I’ve been thinking about doing good. I confess that as a mother of small children, and then a manager and executive in technology, I cared less about virtue than excellence in my work. As a result, I’ve come at Good with the energy and naivete of a newbie.

I include my emergent thoughts here, on Saturdays abstractly, and on weekdays specifically – teasing out what ethical commerce and lifestyle initiatives I might support. To be sure, my efforts are patchy, intermittent, and a little plodding. But they’re not nothing.

I do get scolded.

Which made me wonder, scolding, does it actually contribute to our collective virtue? Does it make us better overall? And if so, how?

The village scold has been part of human culture for centuries. I think she played a useful function. I imagine a middle-aged woman, aproned, floured, wagging her finger at an errant youth. I imagine said youth either chastened or arrogant and laughing. But I also imagine that said youth couldn’t run away altogether from the scolder’s intent.

Villages were small. Families stayed put.

Today, I think if we want to scold someone with effect, we have to earn the trust of those we would make better.

People become adult precisely by coming to believe that they know what they are doing, that they have understood some things. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, i.e. when shamed, many of us activate self-defense mechanisms. “How do you know? There’s no science! You’re weird! That’s too hard! I’m good enough!” Or maybe that’s just me.

I used to respond strongly to shame. Maybe as do all well-loved children. My father would call me into his study, to stand on the Persian carpet. It was 1964, I was eight, he sat behind a Danish modern desk. Even seated he was tall. If I backed up I bumped into a low bookshelf filled with Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes. I didn’t move. I listened to him tell me what I had done wrong and I believed him. I felt it in my body. Although it hurt, I didn’t want to run. Shame works when you are cared for, and even so, should be used with caution.

Now, I respond to scolding when I trust the scold. Who do I trust? The kind. The consistent. Those who clearly live the precepts they profess. Those who have shown themselves vulnerable. Just being in the right isn’t enough, we humans love to squirm into gray areas, and we need a hand to keep us honest. Or maybe that’s just me.

Please do not stop speaking up for what is right, here. I am learning even though I’m a pretty good squirmer.

Maybe the same effort which gives us the right to scold does all kinds of other good? Who would object to intimacy, kindness, constancy, truth? Maybe the village finger-wagger was also a baker, sneaking hot and sugared currant buns to the the dirtiest of children? Maybe she burned their tongues just a little and it was OK.



Hot cross bun photo via Alpha on Flickr

41 Responses

  1. I have a hard time accepting scolding, as I spend too much energy scolding myself. Last year, I just listened and paid attention to all of the internal scolding and was sort of amazed at the endless stream, so this year is about pulling it back as much as I can.

    1. @kathy, I can’t agree with you more. I exhort myself internally, and as a result can’t stand to be urged on from the outside. We deserve clean slates in our hearts, even if we have to wipe the dust away ourselves.

  2. I don’t respond well to scolding or shaming. I need to learn how to take criticism in a more positive way.

  3. I was/am a good girl, no corner office for me, and I respond to scolding. It’s a good way to get me to change my ways. Now that I’m all grown up sometimes I dish some of it out myself. I don’t usually circle around to see if it worked; I may be a scold but I’m not a nag.

    I had a rush of scold feelings when I walked past those hot cross buns at WF, minutes before I read your blog while waiting in line. Who do they think they are putting hot cross buns out – before Lent has even started? Beyond that transgression, they’ve way over baked them. I like my icing soft and not totally melted into the bun. A wag of the finger to them!

  4. O goodness. A friend and I were just talking about how belittled we feel when we get scolded as adults. And usually it is not being scolded by someone in a higher authority, it’s just somebody who’s wants to have “power”. I think you are spot-on. Scolding needs to come from trust, knowledge and maybe even a common ground. Not some stranger getting high and mighty. I’m over that kind of scolding.
    Thought provoking. Thanks!

  5. What a great topic, Lisa. As a former high school teacher it’s difficult to lose the habit of scolding kids I see doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Too many years of policing crowded school hallways, I guess, asking kids to pick up their garbage, stop shoving each other, or get to class. Maybe scolding is not the word I want here, I’ll go for correcting behaviour in a brisk, “I’m friendly but I’m definitely in charge” voice. But I agree with your sentiment that for adult-to-adult “scolding” to have any impact the scold has to have credibility. Actually, now that I think of it, that’s the way it works with kids too:)

  6. For me, because I have an overly active inner scold of my own, it’s best if any gentle chiding comes from someone who I know sees my good self in at least some of its fullness. . . .perhaps that’s part of what you imply by trust.
    I can’t see much that would be scold-worthy in you. . .

  7. This may be off-topic, but my first association to scolding is guilt, something that is a dominant part of my inner life, perhaps as a result of Catholic schools. I marvel at people who don’t feel guilt, ever. (Even when they should.) My husband is in this category; guilt is simply not in his repertoire. Everyone I can think of who is free of guilt is male.

    1. @Duchesse, I have heard that talk – it didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I’m weird? Or I didn’t understand it? Because I feel what I’m quite sure is shame about my perceived failures to achieve, and that’s supposed to be guilt.

  8. My inner scold is very strong, and I will never live up to her expectations. So much scolding from outsiders often seems to come across as something other than good intentions. I think you are right about trust. It seems to me that kindness is necessary and also a generosity. Perhaps the best scolds are the ones who see good, and thank us for our efforts before kindly making suggestions as to what could be better.

    1. @Mardel, Aw, tell your inner scold that it’s time to stand down! I really do think that’s the real privilege of aging, if we can but manage our inner voices.

  9. Excellent piece. Well said. As Kathy Leeds and Frances noted above, my inner scold is surprisingly strong; I don’t need any help. Wisdom for alteration comes to me through firm, loving truth from people I know care about me. For years I assumed the critical voice was a normal. It is only in the last few years that I realize that not everyone is carrying it. A therapist I saw suggested I replace the inner scold with the voice of encouragement I would use with a vulnerable person I love. She also said to say, Stop to the negative voice. The therapist I see now helped me, using guided imagery, which may sound weird but can be powerful, to see who came into my mind as guides. I now talk to those guides, who were loving people I would talk to anyway if they were still alive. As to doing good, I excelled at that to the point that my last CEO said I was not only his best manager, but the “moral center” of our company. It occurred to me then, and more now, that may have been/be more work than I meant to take on. Currently, I need to tend to my immediate world in a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kind of way. I try to do good daily in any way I can, though I wish I had the Koch brother’s budget for the changes I’d like to see. I wish you luck in finding what works for you. One way you do good is with your writing on your blog. It has been a beneficial source of kindness, wisdom, and inspiration for me, as was your personal support in phone calls at a hard time in my life. So, there you are, doing good for years already. xo.

    1. @Katherine C. James, I am touched and happy to hear that my blog and our conversations felt like kindness and wisdom. I am wholly aware of all my imperfections, as many of us are, and so those times when I can pull it together and behave well, to the benefit of others, are really meaningful to me. I hope you are tending to yourself, well, and that you are now taking on only the work you need to.

  10. As an eager-to-please child with very demanding and critical parents, I came to dread nothing more than being scolded which was more painful to me than physical punishment. And grew an oversized inner scold of my own, that I’ve worked very hard to shrink back down to manageable size. But at this point in my life those external scolds mostly Piss. Me. Off. because I read their intention as diminishing others, rather than teaching or providing tools for better decision making.

    1. @déjà pseu, I feel so sad for the over-scolded children. Why did parents feel the need to do that? Why not spend more time modeling the behavior you want to support? And I think you are right – the petty scolds are just looking to make themselves feel better by diminishing others. Which is why we all run in the other direction.

    2. @déjà pseu, I was the same eager-to-please child and felt deeply ashamed at any kind of scolding. (It took me years in therapy to learn that what I thought was guilt was actually shame, and to understand the difference.)

  11. I have no tolerance for one adult scolding another. I find is disrespectful, rude and belittling. Nobody should be treated this way.

    When one individual has a problem with another, there are far better ways of communicating than scolding.

    1. @Susan Williams,
      For as long as I can remember, I have felt no tolerance for scolding.

      I simply do not allow for it. Why does one person feel they can treat another so poorly?

  12. Agree with the majority – I tend not to scold others but my inner scold is quite relentless at the moment. There’s a constant internal battle: mindfulness vs scold. It’s exhausting.

  13. I am thinking of Cook in the Downton Abbey Series, well respected she is, and a lot of scolding she does give!

    The Arts by Karena

  14. Thank you so much for this! With adults, especially in the workforce, it’s very sad that so many “leaders” confuse feedback with scolding.

  15. I had to ask the office staff at my dentist’s office to assign a different dental hygienist to me as I did not like to be scolded by someone providing a service to me. And no, adults should not scold other adults. It is demeaning and counterproductive.

    I think my own inner scold is about right. I tend to be kind to myself!

  16. Oh I remember being that child. My father still tells me – I was well loved and such a good child that I never took to scolding well. I felt it so deeply. But on to the positive – yes! go out and do good. You will not believe how good it feels!!

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