My husband has been telling me that I’m overdoing it with the kids and guilt trips. It sounds funny, but it’s family tradition. I guilt our children into doing what needs to be done. People might think I’m a horrible parent, but my parents did it to me and my siblings, and we turned out OK. What’s wrong with a little guilt? Esther - Brooklyn
Before I respond to this e-mail, I would like to clarify something. Using the excuse “My parents did it to me”, just doesn’t cut it. Can you demonstrate that, because of the way your parents made you feel, you are a better person for it? Perhaps if your parents hadn’t made you feel guilty you would have been happier, or more successful! I’m not a big fan of this logic.
In any case, your question was “What’s wrong with a little guilt?” Being a successful and nurturing parent obviously includes several elements. There is what I like to call the physical/spiritual aspect, which includes sending him to Yeshiva, helping her Daven, providing them with food and clothing. You also have what I call the responsibility aspect. This includes ensuring that your child is safe and well-behaved and treats others with respect.
Another aspect is what I call the emotional aspect, which includes nurturing your child’s emotions. One difficult challenge for parents is raising kids without instilling guilt in their psyches. What is guilt? Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions (or inactions) have caused, or might cause, harm to another person, in any way. While there can be situations where guilt is useful, when it comes to children, not so much.
How do parents make their children feel guilty? Here are some common instances.
“You know what? I’ll do it myself!”
“I work so hard taking care of you, and this is the thanks I get?!”
“I’m like a slave to my own children. You’re making me so sad!”
Comments like these give the parents some control. One mother told me that the purpose of her guilt trips was not to motivate her children, rather, it made her feel better. I completely understand. I’m not saying I agree, but I understand. It gives her power in the situation.
Here are the issues that may arise if you continuously give your kids a guilty conscience. I’m not saying any of them will happen, only that it can. I’m pretty sure that if you give them a guilt trip occasionally, they’ll be fine. However, if you continuously load them with guilty feelings, here’s what can happen:
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario. You are doing homework with your 3rd grader and need help watching the baby for a few minutes. You turn to your 8th grade daughter who is frantically texting all her classmates, and ask, “Can you please watch the baby for a few minutes?” She replies, “I’m really taking care of something now, and I watch her all the time.” Should you…
As always, if you feel that you keep reverting to the guilt trip, you might want to consider speaking with someone (a mentor, a therapist, a good friend) for advice. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or a “horrible parent” as you wrote. Rather, it’s just making an effort to grow as a parent and develop a new skillset when raising your children.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.