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Teaching Children | Family Values | Parenting Guilt

Guilt Trip to Somewhere

Teaching your children the value of guilt.

by Rachel Kadish

December 10, 2009

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Thanksgiving dinner was minutes away. The food was steaming in its dishes, relatives were milling in the living room, and my father was getting ready to carve the turkey, when my five-year-old nephew was discovered in the kitchen. He was standing next to the turkey, his eyes just level with the counter where it rested, whispering to it: “If you can hear this, I’m really sorry.”

For a very long time I’ve listened to people speak about guilt in purely negative terms. Guilt, if you reduce these conversations to their essence, is bottomless shame that keeps you awake at night. It’s the vinegar in the stew, the weapon a family member points at you, often unfairly. It’s something paralyzing and maddening that makes all your good qualities seem null. It is, most of all, something we absolutely, definitively, will not inflict on our children.

I’ve always felt there was something wrong with this picture.

Settling my two-year-old in for a cross-country flight, I saw that the position of her car seat in the airplane seat would make it tempting for her to spend the five-hour flight kicking the seat in front of her. I unbuckled her, took her to the row ahead of us, and asked the passenger in front of my daughter if she’d be willing to meet her. The woman warily introduced herself as Margaret. We talked for a moment; then I told my daughter that if she kicked the seat, it would bother Margaret. Margaret, intrepid soul, did not request a seat change. As for my daughter, she kicked just once in the five hours - at which point I reminded her about Margaret, and there were no more kicks until the plane landed.

My daughter stopped kicking because she understood she wasn’t just breaking an abstract rule, but that she was responsible for bothering a specific person. Yes, it’s true that there’s far too much toxic guilt floating around, and it can be both dreadful and ineffective. Small wonder plenty of people try categorically to avoid exposing their children to guilt at home. But out in the world our kids will sometimes misstep . . . people will react to the missteps . . . in other words, guilt happens. Do we really want to give our kids no practice in confronting and resolving guilt, no map through the miasma? We teach the kids table manners so they won’t be embarrassed or shunned when they’re older. We don’t leave toilet training to the kids’ peers - that would set them up for humiliation. If we don’t teach them, likewise, how to deal with guilt at home, aren’t we setting them up for trouble?

Guilt has gotten such a bad name we tend to forget it’s also a fundamental catalyst for a whole lot of positive things we want our kids to learn: responsibility, empathy, decisive action that fixes problems and mends feelings. It can be nothing more and nothing less than the warning light on a dashboard that says you’d better attend to a problem before something more serious develops.

Still, given all the potential downsides of guilt, using it does feel a bit like playing with fire. This is the reason I’ve resolved to split my idea of guilt in half. On the one side, there’s shame: lousy, unshakeable, endless, shame-on-you shame. And then on the other side there’s culpability.

Check any dictionary, and you’ll see that the main meaning of the word “guilt” isn’t shame, or remorse or any of those ball-up-into-fetal-position emotions we associate it with - in fact, the primary meaning of “guilt” has nothing to do with any emotion at all. “Guilt,” according to our dictionaries, means first and foremost culpability. Culpability as in the fact of guilt. Not the free-floating emotion of guilt, but the real actual black-and-white fact of it - as in, you are guilty of the crime or you are not. If you are, you’re responsible and you need to make amends. If not, you are not responsible. End of story.

How refreshing.

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