By J. Kelly McCoy
One of the most difficult experiences a parent must face is in helping their child deal with his or her own disappointing and mistaken behavior. What parent has not ached when seeing their child become withdrawn or frustrated by the realization that they have done something that is wrong or short of what they are capable. As parents, when our children experience this personal hurt, our first desire is to protect them from their own pain.
In fact, too often parents do step in and protect their children from their own poor choices. We as parents are all, at some time, likely to jump in and protect our children from their own disappointing behavior. For example, it is hard not to step in and help our child when he or she has procrastinated the completion of a science fair project that is due the next day. Yet, we cheat our children out of important life lessons if we are always stepping in and bailing them out of whatever undesirable situation they have gotten themselves into.
By protecting our children from the bad feelings resulting from their own mistakes and poor choices, they miss some of the greatest opportunities for growth. In his book, The Optimistic Child, Martin Seligman argues that “children need to fail. They need to feel sad, anxious, and angry. When we impulsively protect our children from failure, we deprive them of learning [how to persevere]. When they encounter obstacles, if we leap in to bolster self-esteem. . ., to soften the blows and to distract them with congratulatory ebullience, we make it harder for them to achieve mastery.”
When children fall short or make poor choices they should feel sincere disappointment. But it is important that parents also teach children the appropriate way to respond when they do experience personal disappointment as a result of falling short of their own expectations. When a child does experiences disappointment over their own actions, their reaction to that disappointment can result in either personal growth or personal paralysis depending on how they respond.
New research by Dr. June Tangney and others demonstrates that children can indeed learn from their mistakes or they can merely learn to avoid dealing with their own mistakes and disappointing behavior. Based on the original work of Helen Block Lewis in the early seventies, Tangney and others now stress that the outcome of a child’s own disappointing behavior will largely be a result of whether they respond to that behavior with guilt or shame. When children do experience disappointing behavior, those who respond with guilt are much more likely to learn from their mistakes than those who respond with shame.
First, it is necessary to define how guilt and shame are different. According to Tangney, guilt is thought to be a remorse over one’s own disappointing behavior. For example, a child might say, “I don’t know why I said those mean things to Jamie, that was a terrible thing to do.” In contrast, shame is also thought to be a felt remorse, but one that generalizes that disappointing behavior to the child’s definition of him or herself. For example, the same child might instead say, “I don’t know why I said those mean things to Jamie, I am such a terrible person, I don’t know why anyone would want to be my friend.”
Research has demonstrated that when children and adults respond to their own disappointing behavior with sincere guilt, they are more likely to respond to their negative feelings by wanting to correct the outcome of their behavior and change how they behave in the future.
In contrast, those who respond to their own disappointing behavior with real shame are likely to initially feel a great deal of sorrow, but because they have generalized that behavior to their own self definition, and because it is much more difficult to change who we are than to change a single behavior, the individual who experiences shame will often begin to look for someone or something else to blame for their disappointing behavior.
In sum, when our children respond to their own disappointing behavior with guilt they are more likely to feel motivated to change that behavior. When our children respond to the same behavior with shame they are more likely to interpret that behavior as defining who they are, and thus are less motivated to see that behavior as something that can be changed.
Finally, while our children must take responsibility for their poor choices, we should never allow them to define themselves by the poor choices that they make.
But, what determines whether our children will respond to their own disappointing behavior with guilt or with shame?
The research by Tangney and others mentioned earlier also demonstrates the important role that parents have in determining whether children feel no disappointment, guilt, or shame, when poor choices are made. Early in children’s lives, they look to their parents to learn what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and how they should respond when they have engaged in inappropriate or disappointing behavior.
Children are more likely to feel ashamed when their parents belittle them (“Why are you always so stupid?”), but are more likely to feel guilt if parents criticize the children’s inappropriate behavior, helping them to understand why their actions are wrong and what they need to do to correct what they have done.
Children need to learn to be accountable for their actions, but that learned accountability can bring either growth or doubt. As we respond to our children’s incorrect choices, we must make sure that our responses create healthy response patterns within the children themselves. Based on the research available, it would appear that teaching our children the value of guilt as a response to their own inevitable mistakes may be one of the greatest traits we can give them.
J. Kelly McCoy is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho