One of my children did something and did not tell me about it for several months. They’d held their deed and the pain surrounding it so tightly that at one point they were physically ill. My goal was to get them to free themselves rather than “come clean” or “tell the truth”. How could I build trust with my child while also obtaining the full story of what happened?
We’ve all experienced guilt in some form or other. Guilt is often leveraged as a social or spiritual modification. Guilt is supposed to function as a mechanism that redirects our behavior. It’s supposed to make us feel bad when we’ve done something wrong. It functions best when an individual feels so much shame and negativity about a behavior that they are forced to abide within the norms of their community or hide from themselves and others all together.
As our society evolves and we have a better understanding of who we are and what makes us tick, is guilt an outdated form of behavioral conditioning? I believe so. I believe that people but most specifically children, can be taught to analyze negative behavior through empathetically connecting with those they’ve wronged, hurt, or even disappointed. This empathetic connection, extracts them from their internal view of who they are in that moment (a bald person) to what they can do as reparations for another through remorse.
When we use guilt as a parenting, classroom, and even societal behavior modification we allow the individual to spiral inward. What did I do wrong? Why am I bad? How do I feel about my actions? What do I think the other person/people think about me? These aren’t action based ideas but are reflection based ideas. If someone has wronged another, reflection has its place but as the individual reflects, the other person that was wronged experiences nothing on their healing journey. In our society, we do not use that reflection time to build an action plan, (how do I make this right?), rather we use an individual’s reflection time to abuse them, categorize them, and criminalize them. A look at our criminal justice system shows just how much we support guilt over remorse and rehabilitation.
Guilt assumes that mistakes are unreasonable. It requires an individual to compare their behavior to an unreasonable image of perfection. That’s insane. And in terms of raising kids that’s harmful because mistakes are an inevitability. Remorseful reflection does not force the individual to “never wrong another again”. In fact, remorseful thinking acknowledges our humanity and our imperfections and then requires us to act upon the negative behavior in a way that is productive. Remorseful thinking connects our infractions to how they impacted the other person, then think about how to either make it up to that person and learn from what happened in an effort to improve for next time. Remorse can’t be controlled by external forces because as the individual takes their journey, their reparations- their contribution- is healing and is experienced positively by all. Remorse is liberating for all involved.
As I continue to cultivate my parenting style I think about the kinds of people I want to release into the wild. Do I want someone internally plagued by an attempt to control their behavior based on their perception of what’s acceptable? Do I want someone capable of understanding that their actions contribute to the group and impact others and therefore they must find solutions to make things right when things go wrong? Remorse is external. Guilt is internal. Remorse is progressive. Guilt is puritanical. Remorse is exocentric. Guilt is egocentric. By focusing less on what they did, or how that action makes them a “certain kind of person”, I was able to help my child work toward a favorable solution that would rectify what happened.
I told my child that guilt makes you hide in the darkness and it grows inside you and around you because you feel ashamed and not remorseful. The more shame you feel, the deeper you walk into guilt, the darker things get, and you lose your way because you can’t see what’s happening outside of yourself. As soon as you begin shedding your guilt you see the light. And as the light shines on your face, the darkness is behind you. Walk toward that light and feel remorse. Feel for the other person. Meditate on what you can learn from the situation so that you know better and can do better next time.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working in edtech. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.