Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The usefulness of guilt

Years ago I participated in a Sunday School class for parents with teens. The focus was on the good, the bad, and the incorrigible and was led by a child psychologist. One parent raised the question of using guilt and, hey, wasn't that a bad thing? The teacher laughed and said that guilt is not necessarily bad and often is the only thing a parent has. Finally. Something I could use.

Tuesday's New York Times had a great article about the usefulness of guilt and atonement in raising considerate, conscientious adults. Now, there's a big difference between guilt (about the act or behavior) and shame (about the "badness" or incompetence of a person). Several studies are showing that guilt, properly handled, can really help a child understand undesirable behavior and the importance of making amends.

Of course, much has been made over the years about parents, usually mothers, who instill feelings of guilt children. Literature and jokes are rife with famous "guilt groups" - Catholic, Jewish, Puritan - famous for causing life-long guilt (or shame, depending on how it's handled). The reality in my own life is that, yes, guilt - the stuff tied to behavior - has kept me out of a lot of trouble, especially before the age of 30.

It's funny, but when I was growing up I never considered how bad behavior would effect me; I always thought of how it would hurt and disappoint Mother and Daddy. While it didn't keep me from all unfortunate behavior (I have a long trail of that, goodness knows), it did keep me from doing a lot of stupid stuff in my teens and early 20's. The potential guilt of hurting my parents saved me from making some real blunders. The enormity of bad guilt-feelings just wasn't worth the momentary delight of doing something questionable.

The other side of that coin is that there is behavior I wish I felt guilty for: too much food, not enough exercise, lack of patience, etc. Hmmm. I'll have to work on that.


chux said...

My mother was the one that trained my conscience through guilt. I hated the thought of disappointing her and making her cry. Funny thing is I don't think she was the one behind it, i think it was me! My brothers certainly didn't have the same issue about letting her and my father down believe me.

As I'm commenting i think i'm linking guilt and conscience together. Conscience definitely needs to be directed, kids (generally)don't have the capacity to create their own moral compass.

thanks for another interesting one Mary!

MaryB said...

Chux, I think that's what the studies mentioned in the NYT are saying - that there's a positive link between properly directed (and received) guilt/atonement and a conscientious adult. I know I was really influenced for the good by the thought of disappointing my mother and daddy. (And see what a good guy you've grown up to be!)

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure about this whole guilt thing. Guilt, guilty, etc., conjure up all sorts of bad vibes. I think it a stretch to put much of positive spin on guilt. Few defendants who are pronounced "guilty" by a jury rejoice. Your life success may be a result of doing the right thing despite your guilt. Who knows what a dose of positive reinforcement may have accomplished?

chux said...

sorry gotta disagree with that one...bit too tree huggery for my tastes.

Don't get hung up on the word guilt, think of it as parameters and values established from loving parents. Things done in a loving way are always upbuilding....even when it comes to providing a moral guideline.
I do realise that not all parents are capable of doing this, but in my experience and from what I can tell from Marys post it worked for us.