Other than love, guilt is been the biggest emotion I have had to deal with in my parenting journey. I have cried over how many times I yelled at my kids when a softer, kinder word would have been much better. I have asked for forgiveness more times than I can remember for losing my temper over things that in the long run didn’t matter. I have confessed to my husband millions of times of making a wrong decision and wondering how those decisions would affect my children.
- We will not be perfect parents.
- We will make bad decisions.
- We will get angry and mess up at times.
- Raising children is rewarding, but messy and certainly, it is not easy.
Guilt is often a useless, unproductive emotion that is misplaced. Therefore, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to parenting successfully.
Like most of us, you might be tempted to feel guilt over things your kids do. Perhaps you feel that you did something wrong that your child copied and repeated. This is called ‘useful guilt’. This type is guilt is caused to make you aware of what ‘you’ are doing wrong so that you can fix it to be a better person. Not only for you but for your children as well.
‘Useless guilt’ is caused by others trying to make you feel bad for parenting differently or you notice your child chooses a negative path that you felt you should have been able to stop them from taking. This is not influenced by you or your example, but they are just making decisions that are not positive.
As guilt can cause us to personally make bad choices, I am hoping this chapter will help you be able to parent with more freedom and wisdom.
Although your children have much of your DNA, they are unique individuals. Some of their behaviours might be like yours while others might be completely unlike anything you have ever shown or taught them. They will have their own thoughts, their own ideas and have their own beliefs of what is right and wrong. As human beings, they have free will which allows them the right to choose. No matter what you have taught them if they chose a different path than what you hoped they would, you should not be feeling guilt. These decisions are ultimately up to them to make.
This doesn’t release us from doing our job: As their parent, you have the biggest opportunity to influence them and you need to take that responsibility seriously. You must ensure they know the consequences of their decisions. That starts by giving them consequences at home for their behaviour. Never letting up on those so they understand that life will not give in to their every whim.
Having consequences, hopefully, will teach them to choose the better options. If they choose something they shouldn’t, that is their choice. On the same line of thinking, their successes are not yours to carry, either. If they do great, become rich or famous, or are successful this is not your glory to take. Your child’s successes should not be what you need to validate your worth. You should be proud of them, but their successes are theirs and theirs alone. I say this because we tend to take on the good and the bad of what our children do. This behavior is not helpful to anyone.
The guilt from your children’s low points will weigh you down. Needing your children’s successes for your personal glory will weigh them down.
Let me explain: If you feel guilt, you will react or say things that will hinder your ability to give good advice. If your child swears and you know she heard it from you, you might not give a consequence. Your guilt knowing that she is merely repeating your behaviour can cause you to act incorrectly.
Don’t ignore the wrong behaviour, instead, acknowledge your error and tell the child that you are sorry for your actions. Explain that you will change the way you talk around her and give yourself a consequence along with her. Many parents use a swear jar for something like this: every time someone swears, that person must put money in the jar. Whatever you decide to do, you must make the consequence fit the crime. (Much more about this in a chapter in my Parent With Purpose book: “Make the punishment fit the crime”).
Feeling guilty because you think you should have been able to prevent your child from making a bad choice won’t accomplish anything. If they followed your bad example, fix it. They will learn more from you owing up to your mistake and fixing it.
If your child decides to do something you have never shown a bad example of, he has made an individual choice, which has nothing to do with your parenting. This is called free will.
You must set consequences and stick to them, and if you have and that did not deter your child, that is because they have ‘free will’.
Your options at that point are:
- to choose to make the consequences more severe and, depending on the child, that might work or it might make the child more determined to be their own person.
- Or you can ignore the behaviour, which will lead to an adult who feels no need to own their mistakes.
- Or you can continue with the consequences you have already set down.
Personally, I would try one or two more dire consequences, but I wouldn’t go overboard on this. It is more important to keep the consequences still fair in comparison to the crime. You must remember that they are choosing their own outcome by the choices they are making. You feeling guilty about their choices helps no one. In fact, it empowers them to be even more rebellious.
Guilt is a state of mind:
I was sent a cartoon by email, which was exactly what I needed to release me from my guilt. I share it with you in the hopes it will do the same for you.
It showed Adam and Eve in the garden trying to hide their nakedness after eating the apple and the caption read, “What makes you think you are the only one that cannot make your children behave?” Realizing if God couldn’t get His kids to do what they were supposed to, what makes me think I can? The burden I was carrying of not having the ‘perfect family’, came off my shoulders. I thanked God for allowing this little cartoon to teach me so much.
I stress the idea of understanding useless and useful guilt throughout the book.
I think, when we have useless guilt, we tend to overcompensate one way or the other. You will either become overly strict, which will make willful or rebellious children. Or you will relax your consequences, which then lets your children believe that they can outwit authority. The best course of action is to stick with what you know is a fair and reasonable consequence and ensure they are given when necessary.
When your children are little, this is easier. But as they grow it becomes more challenging to establish and stick to boundaries. A few weeks ago, a friend told me that her very willful daughter is sneaking out at night and won’t obey the house rules. When my friend asked me what to do, I told her the same thing I am expressing here: Even though this situation is much more serious than a child swearing, there is not much more one can do. Give the consequence you have set out for this behaviour and be there to listen when they want to vent. The more you fight against a willful child, the more they will try and figure out how to outmaneuver you.
Discovering my daughter snuck out of her window to go to parties, confirmed that I had a very willful child. Realizing I could not prevent her from being self-destructive didn’t prevent me from feeling extreme guilt. In hindsight, I realized I was wrong. My daughter has spoken to me often regarding this issue. Telling me that it wouldn’t have mattered what I did, she would have found a way to work around me.
She expressed the same thing about the stealing she was prone to do. The simple fact was, she wanted what she stole, and she was going to take it. It wasn’t until one of her very closest friends stole from her several times that she began to understand the moral issues and the hurt it causes those from whom you steal. All our teaching, reasoning and punishments were not what helped her to stop stealing. We took things away from her that she cared about for long periods of time and did everything else we could think of to teach this same lesson, she just didn’t learn it until it was done to her.
Sometimes it will take dire circumstances to get your children’s attention. A difficult fact that sucks. The consequences they face in the outside world are theirs to own. All a parent can do is be present when and if they get in so deep and don’t know how to get out. At that point, because you have always been fair and decent in your behaviour towards them, they will come to you for advice and help. That is when you can be the most valuable to them because then they are finally ready to learn.
I hold onto one important phrase my mom used to say to me when I was younger: “If you wait until you are asked a question, they are then ready to listen and learn.” Think about this, and you will see it is true for all adults as well, not just children. Someone can, out of the blue, tell us something, and we might hear what the person is saying and take the advice. However, if we actively seek guidance from a person, we pay better attention to the answer and, therefore, hear and possibly heed what is being told. The truth in this is the fact that you are seeking parenting advice and are ‘willingly’ reading this book.
So it is true with your children. They will hear some of what you say, but they will hear everything you say if they ask for help and or your advice.
How to keep your head in the game of parenting instead of feeling guilt:
You were blessed with the children you have because you are the perfect parent for these children. That doesn’t make you a perfect parent; it just makes you the perfect person to raise the children that were given to you. We all have many different qualities and faults. So, do our children and we were handpicked to have the children we have because the mix of who you are and who they are is perfect.
Two important pieces of information:
- You have the most awesome responsibility to raise your children to be all they can be. That is your job, and you specifically are entrusted with this task. This has nothing to do with your children validating you. Your children are not here to make you look good or bad.
- Work to release yourself from unnecessary guilt but use the other guilt to make yourself a better person. You are the example your children will look up to more than anyone else.
The knowledge that you were given to your children by design shows us that what we have to offer is what they will need. I am not saying you should not feel bad if you do something wrong. We are all supposed to learn from our mistakes and try not to make the same ones again. Rather than feel bad about ourselves, we need to learn to let our mistakes make us better people. And to teaching your little ones this lesson is precisely your job as the parent: And what better way but by allowing them to see you make mistakes, learn from them, apologize for them, and talk to them about how you have learned from your mistakes? I will even go one step further and say that the mistakes you make are precisely what your individual child will need to see and learn from to make them all that they can be.
Your children will see your mistakes. If you do not take steps to correct yourself, your children will see that they have two choices. They will make a conscious effort not to do what you did because they saw the effect it caused, or they will make the same mistakes themselves. If they choose to make the same mistakes you did then they also have the same chances to learn from their own mistakes, in which case the cycle continues. The best-case scenario would be for them to learn from you because they saw you amend your mistakes.
Now if you are aware you are the direct reason for a child doing something wrong, you should be the better person and fix it. You shouldn’t say, well as adults we can, even though that might be true. We are their examples and so we should adjust our behaviour to show them how to act. If a man tells a dirty joke in front of children, is that proper, no. But to tell it with his buddies at work or with their partners while the children are not present is quite acceptable. For us to swear in front of our children is not the time or place to be exercising our rights as adults. We need to save that for adult time only when our children are not in earshot.
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