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.
I don't want shame to have any place in my parenting. But culpability? I absolutely want to teach my kids about that. (I should confess at this point that this is particularly hard for me. I am not only a softie, but am prone to laugh when I ought to be stern, because the kids are just too damn funny . . . a fact they surely capitalize on.) But I want the notion of culpability to prompt my kids to realize they've caused a problem, and catalyze them to repair any harm they've done so they can then move on happily with no regrets.
I want them to take guilt trips that go somewhere.
Years ago, my friend Karen's then-twelve-year-old daughter Anna decided that her brownie bake sale, which she planned in order to raise herself some pocket money, would bring in more profit if she announced she was selling the brownies for the benefit of Bulgarian orphans. When Karen belatedly discovered Anna's scheme, she first responded with a dose of outrage. Anna countered with the mute shrug of a hardened criminal. Later, after a deep breath, Karen switched to a focus on culpability: you've done a wrong and now you have to fix it. She tasked Anna with tracking down a charity, through which Anna then sent her profits to Bulgarian orphans.
Did it work? Anna, now seventeen, says this: "I did feel guilty, and would have felt ashamed . . . but immediately donating the money removed the shame I would have had and made me feel much better."
Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the parenting book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, has a lot to say about guilt. "Parents are so afraid to shame their children," says Dr. Mogel, "that they bypass opportunities to teach them responsibility. Loving, devoted, intelligent, good-intentioned parents are creating entitled, anxious children who often like to pass the buck. The pendulum has swung too far. So many of us have memories of being shamed or humiliated. We want to spare our children every kind of discomfort, but their moral development is not only important so they'll be good people, [but] it's practical." Kids today, says Mogel, are encouraged to see themselves at the center of the universe. Without being held accountable for their actions, they develop what she calls a "me-first ethos" that can create serious problems down the line.
Guilt, I've come to believe, is like chocolate. Life-changing if used in the proper dose.
But how to know what dose to use? To be honest, I have no idea. When my kids were very small, I voted for the small and direct dosage: stop kicking Margaret's seat. Now that I have a six-year-old, things get a bit more complicated: I know David's mother let him get away with it, but you're not because that is the standard of behavior we believe in.
Then there's the leave-it-to-your-own-conscience variety. My American grandmother grew up during the Depression. She was one of seven children, and when her father died young her widowed mother, facing the necessity of going back to work, sat the kids down and told them: "I can't be home to watch over you, so I want you to conduct yourselves so I can hold my head high when I walk down the street." (One day I am going to speak these words to my own children. The set will be black and white and we will all be speaking with the Brahmin accents of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I will walk off-camera to a swelling of music, knowing I have left behind noble offspring.)
And am I alone in thinking that if that tree in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree hadn't been such a softie, and had asked that self-absorbed boy to be culpable for his own actions, he wouldn't have grown into such a jerk and would have learned to live within his means?To read the rest of this article, click here.