Why are we parents so consumed by guilt? In her article for Parents Magazine titled "What Makes You Feel Guilty?," Nancy Samalin says that guilt comes with the territory of parenting. She advises parents to distinguish between guilt that immobilizes parents and guilt that motivates parents to change their ways. Samalin urges parents to turn the immobilizing kind of guilt, "guilt trips," into positive parenting pep talks, "guilt busters"(Samalin, 1999, pp. 99-102).
A common guilt trip for parents occurs when they catch themselves making mistakes they swore they would never make (such as allowing children to watch too much television, play with toy guns, or talk back). Samalin advises parents to recognize that it is much easier to be a parent in theory than in reality. She also reminds parents that behaviors we learned from our most powerful role models-our parents-are extremely difficult to change. Samalin's "guilt buster" in this situation is for parents to go easy on themselves and recognize that it takes real effort and self-determination to create new scripts with children.
Diane Ehrensaft, author of Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much-But Not What They Need, talks about guilt as "an anguished state of mind arising out of an internal conflict" (Ehrensaft, 1997, pp. 74-102). The internal conflict is best exemplified for Ehrensaft by professional, middle-class parents (who make up the majority of clients Ehrensaft sees in her clinical practice) who are troubled about the precarious balancing act between their own needs and their children's needs. For many parents in Ehrensaft's practice, guilt causes the swing between parenting too much and parenting too little. The overscheduling, overstimulating, and overpromoting of our children is both an expression of and an attempt to alleviate the guilt that dominates parenting, according to Ehrensaft. This same parental conflict, Ehrsensaft observes, leads to hesitancy among parents to discipline children. Guilt and the accompanying bartering for love-worrying about our children liking us-can prevent parents from establishing firm structures for behavior that all children need.
As the title of her book implies, Ehrensaft believes parents are well meaning but often confused. No clear parenting directives exist today, so parents flip flop from one approach to another-permissive to authoritative, democratic to autocratic, indulgent to withholding. This confusion, along with too little time to parent and few external supports, is responsible for what Ehrensaft calls the "perils of parenting."
In their book, Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish discuss their experiences attending a series of parent workshops given by Dr. Ginott, a child psychologist. According to Faber and Mazlish (1990), Ginott believes that the child who stirs up a parent's guilt eventually feels guilty about what he's done to his parent. What should a parent do with guilty feelings? Ginott advises parents to talk to a friend, a spouse, a minister, rabbi or priest, a therapist-anyone who will lend an ear without sitting in judgment. He also encourages parents to tell themselves, "I can work out my guilt without my children's help. I don't need absolution from them" (Faber & Mazlish, 1990, pp. 165-167).
"As parents," Ginott says, "we have to make certain decisions that represent our best judgment at the time. And the decision-making process does not necessarily have to be shared with our children; nor do we permit their evaluation. When a parent is clear about his rights, when he knows that guilt is an inappropriate response, then he helps his child gather strength and learn reality" (Faber & Mazlish, 1990, pp. 168-169).
Ginott's advice reminded one of the authors of a parenting incident in her life when she had helped her child gather strength by not sharing her guilt. The incident involved her kindergarten-aged son, David, who had asked for a drive to school because it was snowing outside. Because there were two younger siblings at home, David was told he could manage to walk the five blocks to school on his own. As the author explains, shortly after David left for school, the wind picked up and the snow worsened. When David returned from school that afternoon, he explained that he had been late to school because the strong winds made it difficult for him to walk quickly. The author admitted feelings of great guilt over the incident but instead of sharing these feelings with David, she responded, "Wow! What a walk you've had! All those long blocks in that bitter wind. That took endurance! That's the kind of thing you'd expect from Abe Lincoln, not a six-year-old boy!" Thus, instead of feeling weak and sorry for himself, David seemed proud of his accomplishment (Faber & Mazlish, 1990, p. 169).
Ehrensaft (1997, p. 244) echoes Ginott's message to parents about accepting our position as adults. "We must stop abdicating the throne and accept our position as an adult," Ehrensaft says. "Children do not do well with deposed kings and queens for parents. To be good parents, we definitely must give generously of ourselves, but never give ourselves over to our children."
Ehrensaft, Diane. (1997). Spoiling childhood: How well-meaning parents are giving children too much-But not what they need. New York: Guilford. (ERIC Document No. ED413111)
Faber, Adele, & Mazlish, Elaine. (1990). Liberated parents, liberated children: Your guide to a happier family. New York: Avon Books. (ERIC Document No. ED405093)
Samalin, Nancy. (1999, November). What makes you feel guilty? Parents, 99-103.