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.