By Randy Cale, PH.D
In my workshops and seminars I am often asked, “What’s the problem with having kids feel a little guilt?” Well, there would be no problem, if guilt were the path to happiness, freedom and success.
Unfortunately, it’s not. Instead, guilt is a debilitating emotion that teaches us to feel badly about ourselves, with the goal of motivating us to do better next time.
There are circumstances where parents can induce guilt, and behavior will change. Thus, it can look like it works. However, you want to notice whether or not this approach has long-term value.
Often, a pattern emerges where kids act out, and parents induce guilt to create bad feelings about the behavior, and the behavior changes. In this model, kids learn to do what’s right by avoiding guilty feelings. However, with time, the memory of the guilty feeling starts to fade away and the negative behavior often re-emerges.
Again, guilt is induced, and behavior changes. Days or weeks later, that guilty feeling has dissipated, and, once again, the negative behavior emerges. We see this pattern in a wide range of addictions, impulsive behaviors and negative behavior patterns and it’s not healthy.
Feeling bad about a poor choice has little value in helping us to consistently choose healthy alternatives. Many people feel guilty after screaming at their kids, but they still do it. Others feel guilty when they overeat, and they still do it. Others may feel guilty about smoking, and they still do it. Guilt is not the answer!
Furthermore, when guilt is a reason for making “the right choice”, notice how often you resent that choice.
Would you want someone to be your friend because they felt guilty if they weren’t being nice to you? Would you want your kids to buy you a birthday present because they would feel guilty if they didn’t buy it? Would you want them to do their homework because they would feel guilty if they didn’t?
Some of you may be saying, “Well…it wouldn’t be so bad.”
But I would like you to consider a few simple points. When we do the right things to avoid feeling guilty, we get no real self-esteem out of that. Instead, we are typically in a struggle about what we want to do versus what some external set of values tells us we should do. This struggle can go on throughout our entire lives, if we live according to the standards that other people give us. You see, that’s the real rub: Guilt comes from the struggle between our own personal desires and the expectations from the outside world.
When we raise children to attend carefully to their own internal standards around what is good, just, and right, they’ll come to trust their heart and their internal voice.
If we raise them to listen to the standards of others, they will always be in a struggle between their own values and desires, and those imposed upon them by society or their relationships with others.
However, this whole issue is avoidable through the simple use of effective parenting strategies. When children learn to do the right thing because it feels good, they choose to do more of the right things. You can teach your kids to stay on a healthy track by investing your attention and energy in those moments that you value.
When you don’t invest a lot of energy into negative behaviors, your kids learn that those patterns are not going to serve them in life. Similarly, when you learn to set limits using consequences and not words, there is no need for guilt-inducing strategies.
This doesn’t mean that you simply ignore every negative behavior, just most of them. For the rest of the more extreme negative behaviors, trust the power of consequences to teach these critical lessons. You don’t need to attempt to induce guilt to try to control behavior.
Guilt is simply unnecessary, counter-productive, and sucks away the joy and happiness that we experience in life. If you doubt this, just notice the effectiveness of guilt as a strategy to get people to do the right thing. It only leads to personal misery and repetitive patterns of trying to “pull it together”, followed by periods when our life falls apart.
The bottom-line: Guilt isn’t necessary and doesn’t work to nurture happiness and responsibility.
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. Dr. Cale’s new website, www.TerrificParenting.com offers valuable free parenting information and an e-mail newsletter.