A number of my readers yesterday took the position that I had “guilted” Sean into giving away the toy. Several points on that:
1. First of all, since he opened the toy, we were unable to give the toy away. So I didn’t guilt him into giving it – he chose to open it whereupon he assumed ownership of said toy.
2. I don’t necessarily think guilt is a completely bad thing. When he’s a teenager and it’s guilt that keeps him from experimenting with drugs or getting into a car with drunken friends, then yay guilt. Bring on the guilt. If it’s guilt that helps him to decide to stick up for a picked-on kid or look after the weak, then three cheers for guilt. Sometimes – sometimes – guilt is what drives us to better choices and behavior. Sometimes – sometimes – we should feel badly about our choices.
In my mind guilt is directed outward — I’m unhappy with you, that you made me do this. Remorse says “I’m unhappy with me. I made a choice that didn’t feel right.” Remorse is likely to alter character. Guilt is likely to alter only behavior. Remorse takes ownership of choice; guilt abdicates ownership of choice. Remorse often comes with tears, guilt usually doesn’t.
3. Having said that, I didn’t guilt Sean into giving the toy. It was his toy and his choice (to keep the toy). As a parent it is my job to make sure he has adequate information to make good decisions. I asked him to think about a few things before he made his choice, things that on his own, as a 5-year-old, he would not think about. If I allow Sean to grow up thinking the world revolves around his comfort and desires, unaware of poverty and suffering, that all children live as well as he — then I am an abject failure of a parent. These lessons must be taught and reinforced daily and it’s never too soon to start.
3. Sean made the choice any typical five-year-old would make. It was the choice I expected he would make. He thought he wanted the toy, but after he opened it, he realized he really didn’t. He disappointed himself more than his mother. His tears were not of guilt, but remorse. I think he realized the thrill of giving it away would have exceeded the short-lived thrill of opening it. In my view, the remorse he felt was a step forward in the shaping of his character.
I am not interested in making sure my child is always happy and comfortable, that his every whim and urge is satisfied immediately, that he never loses or never feels badly or that God forbid he should feel guilt or remorse. I’m driven to raise him up to be a man of character with a heart of compassion and spine to serve. Yes, he is only five, but those seeds must be planted now.
And now I shall hit the publish button.
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