The Utility Of Well-Placed Guilt.

One of my most common disclaimers when I meet new folks is that one of my parents was raised Jewish and the other was raised Catholic, hence I am “half Jewish/half Catholic – which equals twice the guilt.” And while I say this partially in jest, it is grounded in a clear understanding and appreciation of the guilt power both of these religions (Judaism and Catholicism) can bring to bear in parenting.  Seriously, when you think about a guilt-enhancing combo, you would be hard-pressed to beat my combo.

Let’s face it, religion is fraught with guilt. But for the “shall nots,” “musts,”and the recognition of sin, religion would be wholly inclusive. Religions are laden with doctrine that is prescriptive of beliefs and the behavior that aligns with those beliefs. Every religion delivers its own variances on guilt, and the majority of religious followers buy into the guilt as a good and appropriate thing.

I learned in my upbringing that guilt is both formative and reformative. It provided both an internal compass and retrospective redirect in regard to my choices and behavior. On the whole, twice the guilt has served me well, not to the point of neurosis or perfection, but good enough to maintain my prospects of getting into heaven.

As a mother I recognized long ago that there is utility in well-placed guilt when it comes to child-rearing. Used correctly, guilt can help children to understand the impacts our actions or inaction has on others; it can build the perspective necessary to understand our own privilege (or lack thereof) and the plight of those with different experiences; and, it can allow us to understand how to maintain balance and equity in relationships.  Guilt, in the right doses, can help create better people.

I have long used guilt (some well-placed and some self-serving) with my children (ages 35, 34, 28, and 17). The older children have built up some immunity to my guilt applications. Thankfully, they have developed fairly strong internal compasses and the guilt they tend to ignore is the guilt I offer about the importance of following their mother’s sage advice and guidance. When you raise responsible, well-adjusted, successful adults they come to understand that they can handle their lives without their mother’s regular guidance – touché.  But the 17 year old, Cheyenne, is still in her development stage and it is with her that I most thoughtfully use well-placed guilt.

Let me tell you friends, applying well-placed guilt to a teenager is not for the faint-hearted – it requires years of groundwork and thoughtful, sparing application. This is particularly true when you have three older children who are already fully-formed and informed by your parental guilt applications at the ready to either assist or derail your efforts.  I have had to further hone my application techniques as the years have gone by and be aware of dynamics that inevitably occur between the siblings. It is hard, thankless work in the short-term, but it is a staple of parenting that must be mastered.

Today, Cheyenne and I had an opportunity to further develop our understanding of equity and responsibility. Cheyenne is the last child in the house; as such, it is easy for me to be quite Cheyenne-centric. I am at a time and place in my life where I can do more for, and with, Cheyenne.  But there is a fine line between being fortunate and spoiled, a line that I want Cheyenne to appreciate.  Cheyenne has a job, she pays for her own gas and insurance, and if she wants something specific she buys it with her own money. She also has a smattering of chores around the house that she typically does based on a “when I feel like it” basis.

Such was the case today when the dogs needed desperately to be brushed. They have dropped so much hair in the house these past few days that I could weave a blanket. Cheyenne has been working quite a bit over the summer and regular dog brushing fell by the wayside. Today at 9:30 AM, knowing that Cheyenne’s work start time was 12 PM, I asked her to brush the dogs before she went to work. Oh the lamentation! She had a half-dozen excuses about why that could not possibly be done before work today (all without serious merit). When I said it needed to be done today, she said, “No, I can’t do it today, I will do it tomorrow.” That is when it became clear that some character development (via guilt) was appropriate. I replied, “Well Cheyenne, I do many things for you every single day – things I do not need to do, things I do just because you ask me.  But I ask you to do this one thing, something that is your responsibility to do and you cannot make time for it in your morning. Fine, I will remember that.” Nothing more was said, but Cheyenne marched off in a huff.

Just after 10 AM I heard her ushering the dogs outside and at 10:30 AM she informed me that the dogs were brushed. I delivered a simple “thank you” and went about my business without further comment. I was satisfied with the result, brushed dogs and a mental imprint for Cheyenne about responsibility and equity.

Years from now Cheyenne will appreciate, as I appreciate, that well-placed guilt is a gift our parents give us. If you are lucky, you get to pass that gift on to your kids.  A little guilt can go a long way in developing strong, thoughtful adults, and the half Jewish/half Catholic girl in me does not feel guilty acknowledging that.

Another day in the new forty, obla di obla da

Ms. C

1 Response

  1. tim haering

    personal responsibility. GUilt. Conscience. Discipline. Guilt “trip” when laid on one by another. I said I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath.

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