Q. My husband tells me that I’m overdoing it with guilt-tripping the kids. It sounds funny, but it’s family tradition. I guilt our children into doing what needs to be done. People might think I’m a horrible parent, but my parents did it to my siblings and me, and we turned out OK. What’s wrong with a little guilt?
A. Before I respond to this e-mail, I would like to clarify something. Using the excuse “My parents did it to me” just doesn’t cut it. Can you demonstrate that, because of the way your parents made you feel, you are a better person for it? Perhaps if your parents hadn’t made you feel guilty you would have been even happier or more successful!
In any case, your question was, “What’s wrong with a little guilt?” Being a successful and nurturing parent obviously includes several elements. There is what I like to call the physical and spiritual aspects, which includes sending your children to yeshiva, helping them daven, and providing them with food and clothing. There is also the responsibility aspect. This includes ensuring that your child is safe and well-behaved and treats others with respect.
Another aspect is what I call the emotional aspect, which includes nurturing your child’s emotions. One difficult challenge for parents is raising kids without instilling guilt in their psyches. What is guilt? Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions (or inactions) have caused or might cause harm to another person in any way. While there can be situations where guilt is useful, when it comes to children, that’s not usually the case.
How do parents make their children feel guilty? Here are some common scenarios.
“You know what? I’ll do it myself!”
“I work so hard taking care of you, and this is the thanks I get?”
“I’m like a slave to my own children. You’re making me so sad!”
Comments like these give the parents some control. One mother told me that the purpose of her guilt trips was not to motivate her children; rather, it made her feel better. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I do understand. It gives her power in the situation.
Here are the issues that may arise if you continuously give your kids a guilty conscience. I’m not saying any of these will happen, only that they can. I’m pretty sure that if you guilt-trip them occasionally, they’ll be fine. However, if you continuously load them with guilty feelings, here’s what can happen:
1. Children with guilty feelings can have issues concentrating. They keep reliving these guilty feelings and it can affect their davening, their grades in school, and much more.
2. Children who are made to feel guilty end up more depressed. Not only as adults, but even as children.
3. Children who develop feelings of guilt can have a difficult time creating healthy relationships.
4. When a child is continuously made to feel guilty, he’ll eventually begin to ignore the person who’s piling on the guilt. Therefore, instead of pulling him closer, you’re pushing him away.
5. The reward is only short-term. If you say, “I’ll clean it myself,” it might work now, but it’s are less likely to help in the future.
6. Guilty feelings can cause health problems — not only weight gain or loss, but even medical issues.
In other words, it’s not worth it. In Pirkei Avos there is a phrase, “The gain goes out with the loss.” You might feel a bit better, but it’s just not worth it.
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario. You are doing homework with your third-grade son and need help watching the baby for a few minutes. You turn to your eighth-grade daughter who is frantically texting her classmates, and ask, “Can you please watch the baby for a few minutes?” She replies, “I’m really taking care of something now, and I watch her all the time.” Should you …
(A) In a sarcastic voice, reply, “Sure. Because your texting is more important than what I need done. It’s not like I’m your mother or something.”
(B) Reply angrily, “Fine. I’ll watch her while doing homework with your brother. Why don’t you just take it easy while I take care of everything, including paying for your camp, clothes, and food? I can’t believe you are saying this to me!”
(C) Grab her phone away and yell, “Now can you help?”
(D) In a stern voice say, “Let me rephrase my request. Please watch the baby for a few minutes. This isn’t a discussion. Thank you.”
Let’s analyze the choices. Option “A” uses sarcasm, which is never a good method of communication. Option “B” is the guilt trip we’ve been talking about. She probably won’t offer to help, and both of you will feel miserable and upset. Option “C” is a risky move, because you’re acting out of anger. Option “D” seems to be the best option.
As always, if you feel that you keep reverting to the guilt trip, you might want to consider speaking with someone (a mentor, a therapist, a good friend) for advice. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or a “horrible parent,” as you wrote. Rather, it’s just making an effort to grow as a parent and develop a new skillset while raising your children.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.