Guilt can be a very useful emotion

Guilt has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. People talk about being “plagued by guilt” as if guilt were some kind of mental illness.

Guilt has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. People talk about being “plagued by guilt” as if guilt were some kind of mental illness.

But in fact, guilt is a very useful emotion. People who are entirely guilt-free have no constraints on their behavior. They can cheerfully commit all kinds of mayhem, from bullying to petty vandalism all the way up to rape, robbery and murder, and never feel a qualm: we call them sociopaths.

Guilt, then, plays an important role in keeping civilization civil. But where does it come from? And how does it interact with that other important civilizing mechanism that scientists call “effortful self-control”—the ability to suppress impulsive behavior that might hurt yourself or others?

New York Times science writer John Tierney, who recently took a look at some of the research being carried out into guilt, quotes Grazyna Kochanska, who studies children’s development at the University of Iowa, as saying that children typically start to feel guilty in their second year of life. Some are just naturally more prone to guilt, and some are influenced to feel guilty by their parents and other factors.

“Children respond with acute and intense tension and negative emotions when they are tempted to misbehave, or even anticipate violating norms and rules,” Dr. Kochanska told Tierney. “They remember, often subconsciously, how awful they have felt in the past.”

Literally awful: children often describe guilt as a “sinking feeling in the tummy.”

The results of Dr. Kochanksa’s latest research have just been published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In her experiments, a researcher showed a toy to a toddler, explained that it was something very special that the researcher had had since childhood, and asked the toddler to be “very careful” with it. Then the researcher let the child handle it—and because it was secretly rigged to do so, it immediately fell apart.

The researcher reacted mildly, simply saying, “Oh, my.” And then he or she observed for a full minute, recording every reaction. Some children squirmed, some avoided the researcher’s gaze, some hunched their shoulders, some hugged themselves, some covered their face with their hands.

Dr. Kochanska tracked those children for five years, and found that the two-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the experiment had fewer behavioral problems.

That held true even for children who scored low on measures of effortful self-control, which indicates that strong feelings of guilt can make-up for a lack of self-control.

Similarly, those with strong self-control can still behave well even if they lack strong feelings of guilt. It’s the combination of low guilt and low self-control that spells trouble.

So what can parents do about it, Tierney asks in his column, pointing out that nobody has been able to link any particular pattern of parenting to children’s levels of guilt?

June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University who has studied guilt in both children and adults, had some advice for him.

She points out there’s a difference between shame (the feeling that you’re a bad person because of bad behavior) and guilt, which is focused on behavior. However, small children don’t understand that difference. Tell them they’ve done something bad, and they hear you saying that they’re a bad child.

To avoid that pitfall, Tangney recommends focusing not only on whatever the child did that was wrong, but how the child can make amends: apologizing and cleaning up after a spill, for instance.

This “atonement strategy,” as Tierney calls it, was in fact part of those broken-toy experiments: after the minute of observation, the children were asked what had happened, and then were told the toy could be easily fixed. The researcher left with the broken toy and returned within half a minute with an intact replica of it, took the blame for the damage, reassured the children it wasn’t their fault and pointed out the toy was as good as new.

Tangney’s advice is no doubt excellent, but as every parent knows, perfectly balancing guilt, shame, remorse, apologies, understanding, atonement, cuddles, punishment, tears, shouting, joking and all the other elements of our relationships with our children is as difficult as juggling flaming torches while standing on stilts (as some buskers I saw recently in Quebec City were doing).

And when we drop one of those torches?

We feel guilty, naturally.

Some things never change.

Edward Willett is a Regina freelance writer. E-mail comments or questions to

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