A recent New York Times article reported studies of children and guilt. In sum, guilt is a good thing, if not taken to an extreme. When a two-year-old is told to be careful with a toy, but she breaks it, she typically experiences "a sinking feeling in the tummy." That reaction is what should continue to effectively motivate a child toward good behavior as she grows. She doesn't want to do bad things because she knows it will give her that sinking feeling.
Psychologists aren't yet sure why some of the children feel more guilt than others. Is it more genetics or upbringing?
Even if a child doesn't have a strong feeling of guilt, he may have a strong ability to self-regulate. In other words, bullying on the playground wouldn't produce a sinking feeling and he'd really like to bully those annoying little punks around, but he chooses not to because it simply doesn't seem like wise behavior (you risk discipline, lose friends, etc.).
The problem comes when a child lacks both the feeling of guilt and the ability to self-regulate.
So how should a parent or teacher deal with guilt feelings in children? Surprisingly, many children, and even adults, don't know how to productively deal with these guilt feelings. Let's say your child was careless and spilled his milk. You find him standing over the milk with that pitiful "I've blown it" look on his face. Just say something like, in a matter of fact way, "Perhaps you need to be more careful next time. Now let's clean it up and make the kitchen look even better than it did before."
It's a good way to acknowledge the mistake, give a way to practically deal with the mistake, without producing the unproductive feeling that "I'm a bad boy."
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