[VIDEO] Raising a Shame-Free Child | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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TRANSCRIPTION: Fathers today are still often thought of as secondary caregivers. Often in therapy I have to ask about my client’s dads because their mothers are so prominent. But dads, no matter what, have a strong impact on us.

And those of you watching who are dads need to know that. You’ll teach a lot of things to your kids, but the most important thing, along with being a decent human being to others, is supporting you child in accepting themselves and not growing up with a sense of shame. And I want to tell you about how my dad did that when I was eleven.

The Sunday Morning Ritual

I had been planning it for weeks and this was going to be the Sunday it happened.

Every Sunday morning my dad and I would go to mass together at 8am. He liked 8am because there was no singing until the 9am mass which would add another 20 minutes to the services. I, at pre-puberty, was very religious, but as long as we got through communion I thought I’d avoid hell. So there was only a little guilt about this.

Still, there were two stops we’d make after Mass that I really looked forward to.

First, we’d go to the bakery and I could choose whatever I wanted and I always wanted jelly donuts. The sugar-coated kind, but not the powdered one. I hated those, way too messy. The granulated ones just out of the oven with sweet, sugary, grape jelly in the donut.

I would get three.

My dad always got a crumb bun. So boring. If growing up meant eating crumb buns on Sunday, I wanted no part of being an adult.

After the bakery, we’d go to the store for my dad to get his paper and play the lottery. While he did this, I got to choose an Archie comic book. I loved Archie. As a kid I had bright red hair and lived my life through the wonders of Riverdale which made Yonkers just sad and gray.

We had this routine for years. Starting out I was short enough where I could just see the Archie books. But as I grew older, and taller, I’d see on the next level: Spiderman, Superman—but had no interest in these. But as I kept growing and kept looking up there was another shelf. A shelf where the magazine covers were blocked off and all you could see were the titles. These were in my reach, but they were clearly forbidden. But I was 11. And Betty and Veronica were not doing it for me as much and I really wanted to know what was behind the covers of Playboy. But I didn’t want my church-going dad to know this.

The Plan

So I started to plan. And it was going to be very simple. After Mass I’d tell dad, You know what, I think there’s a new Double Digest out today for Archie. I’m going to skip the bakery and go right to the comic book store—don’t forget my jelly donuts.

While only seven extra minutes, I knew I’d have more than enough time to take a quick look.

As we parked the car I darted down the block, ran into the store, quick left, reached up, grabbed the magazine and just opened it.

And it was filled with words.

Page after page of things to read. As I kept flipping I heard behind me. “Hey! What are you doing?” I had not factored in the dude who owned the store. As I turned around, filled with anger that this all seemed to be for nothing, things suddenly got worse. Because next to the owner was Mrs. Moretti: the 93-year-old woman who sat in front of us in church looking as confused and severe as she always did.

I thought fast and folded the magazine so she wouldn’t see what I had been looking at. And as my anger changed to shame. I ran to the back of the store. I started breathing, I started talking myself down. Ok, ok, you’re ok. This is over. I’m going to be ok. And just as I had convinced myself of that I heard the bell ring signaling that another customer came in.

And I hear the owner, “Sir, is that redhead your son?”

“Yes” says my dad

And I’m thinking it’s fine, it’s fine

And the owner said, “Well, he was looking at Playboy” And he said it as if he had accused me of beating up one of the twelve apostles. I heard the disgust in the owner’s voice and felt the shame even more.

That was it. I walked to the front of the store, out the door, into the car. Not a word was said all the way home. It was five minutes, it felt like three days. I ran from the car directly to the place that shame goes to thrive: the bathroom. And I just sat there wondering how I could live with myself.

Shame is horrible, horrible, but when it’s exposed. How do you come from that? My mother knocked. My father knocked. “I’m fine I’m fine.” My dad finally encouraged me to come out and go into the family room and he sat me down.

I remember there were few lights on. We never opened the blinds in that room. Which I remembering thinking, thank God, I can hide some of the shame in this. And my dad said that he knew what had happened. And then he said that sex was wonderful—when you’re older and in love and married and we’ll talk more about it later but it’s wonderful–and he wasn’t angry at what I had done.

He just said, I’m just upset that you felt you couldn’t talk to me. I want you to know you didn’t have to hide.

So thank you, dad. And Happy Father’s Day.

Shame and Guilt & Parenting

Our kids are going to mess up. Or they are going to internalize something to feel ashamed about–maybe even something, like above, that they don’t need to.

In order to help and support them through this we have to deal with our own shame. I talk a lot with clients about the differences between shame & guilt–guilt tells us we’ve done something wrong and helps push us in the right direction the next time. Shame is the belief that deep down in our core: we’re bad. It’s a horrible message that can only be addressed with learning self-compassion and acceptance. This doesn’t mean that we give ourselves, or our children, a pass when we’ve/they’ve done something wrong, but it does support us in being honest, holding ourselves accountable, and moving forward.


Want to learn how to not pass down shame to your kids? Get in touch for a free consultation and we can talk more about it.


Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)