Both my wife and I grew up with a lot of guilt. Our parents came up the hard way, and they never let us forget that. We were painfully aware of concepts such as “sacrifices”, “deserving and undeserving”, “grateful and ungrateful”. We are now parents of two kids aged five and seven. While we want to teach them to value what they have and have a well-developed conscience about right and wrong, we’re petrified that we may end up guilt-tripping them. How do we find a balance?
The fact that you are both so highly aware of the negative driver of guilt in your growing years is a good thing. As psychologists and spiritual guides emphasize, one of the foremost fuels of unhappiness and mental ill-health is guilt.
Most of us, as children and young adults, have? experienced guilt, and continue to do so. Sometimes, it is “good guilt”—for some wrong we have done, or for something we ought to have done. It may also be guilt about not exercising enough, or spending time with our families, or concentrating on work, etc. This kind of guilt is motivating and can be fixed with apologies, making amends, changing some behaviour, etc. Our guilt works constructively here.
Guilt trip: Learn the difference
“Bad guilt”, more destructive and dangerous, is the kind we carry over issues we wrongly identify as our fault. The accumulation of this kind of guilt begins in childhood, even in infancy. It then casts long shadows on our later lives, not allowing us to self-actualize, stand up for ourselves, identify what we want from life, or simply take pleasure in life.
Parents, anxious to teach their children responsibility, often confuse “good” with “bad” guilt. They end up using guilt or emotional blackmail to get their children to do things: Eat, study, earn, make career and marriage choices…
Consider a child who repeatedly forgets to take her pencil box to school. Fed up, you stop reminding her. She simply borrows a pencil in school. Sooner or later, her friend or teacher snaps at her. She now feels guilty about her carelessness and not listening to your reminders and makes it a point to pack her pencil box. This is good guilt at work.
On the other hand, if you keep following her to school and handing her the pencil box and later berate her about how you had to waste time and energy, she feels guilty, but her behaviour doesn’t change. She keeps forgetting the pencil box; you keep nagging her about it. She grows up with a vague sense of unease about how she troubles her mother. The actual pencil box is forgotten, and only a harmful, free-floating guilt takes its place.
Some sources of guilt that parents can watch out for:
# “Bad guilt” accumulates when lines of communication between parent and child are weak. Many children of divorced parents, for instance, carry guilt, as if the separation was somehow their fault. Only when the parent recognizes this train of thought can he or she intervene and set the record straight.
# Another source of guilt is when children don’t know how to handle strong feelings—anger, sexual attraction, etc. Parents need to communicate to them that it is okay to feel anger, but not okay to express it by hitting friends. Or that it is okay to feel attracted to another child, but not okay to act out these feelings.
# Sometimes, by emphasizing how they have sacrificed their own careers/social life/needs for their kids. This kind of guilt leads children to be, at an unconscious level, almost apologetic about living, something that will completely prevent them from realizing their potential.
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