Guilt in children and school behavior.

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Working as a school psychologist with parents and students for many years, I have learned that guilt is a concept that has been pushed aside to a large degree in our parenting and definitely in our discipline at school.  One result of a good parent-child relationship is that a child will experience guilt when they have done wrong, or when they know they have disappointed you.  This is good.  Guilt ultimately is one of the powerful internal controls that makes us a decent human being.  When a child does something wrong and he knows it, guilt influences his telling you and correcting any wrong doing.  I am seeing more and more kids in the schools who have little or no guilt.  This is scary.  It is very scary.  They only see things from their point of view and their wants and desires.  If a child is raised without sufficient nurturing, bonding, and trust, then why should he feel bad or guilty for doing wrong?  Of course children raised by such parents are raised with loose or no rules, and no respect for their parents or adults.  So what do you think is going to happen when he gets into trouble at school?  He doesn’t feel guilty or bad in the least, and why should he?  And this baffles and frustrates teachers and administrators who can’t understand why these kids don’t feel sorry and keep doing the same thing.  If you don’t feel like you’ve disappointed your parents, because they don’t spend meaningful time with you, love you, and care for you, and don’t feel that you’ve broken rules that they should expect you to follow, then why in the world would you feel guilty?  Actions speak louder than words.  What are your actions telling your children?  Parenting really isn’t complicated.  Your kids will know by your actions if your family is the most important thing in your life.  Where do you spend most of your time and efforts?

Guilt or feeling bad for what you did wrong is a concept that has been antiseptically removed from school discipline.  Today we tell children in school that we don’t like their behavior, as if it is separate from their conscience or who they are.  We use all kinds of behavioristic strategies to try and change their behavior, and never once consider that maybe they should feel guilty, bad, ashamed, or sad.  Teachers often say, “I’m not mad at you, I’m disappointed with your behavior.”  We tell them their behavior was wrong, or sometimes that it was a bad choice.  When they hit another child we say that their behavior was wrong, or they made a bad choice.  What’s wrong with telling them that they were bad?  We treat behavior as if it is some tool that children carry around like a baseball bat for example.  We talk about the bat and nothing about the child’s emotions or guilt.  It’s like we say to kids, I don’t like it when you use that bat to hit other kids, or I don’t like it when you make threatening gestures toward me (the teacher) with that bat.  Of course people working in the schools would say that they do focus on the child, and not just the bat, because they talk about teaching him to make good choices.  Well again, choices, although more internal than behavior, are artificially separated from the child’s conscience, to be manipulated through behavioristic or environmental controls.  Focusing on behaviors is not a very effective way to try and truly change children’s behavior, because behavior is only the outward product of internal needs, thoughts, and feelings.  When you tell a child who had the intention of doing harm that he made a wrong choice, that really doesn’t matter or mean anything to him, because he made that choice for a reason.  Let’s say a child often yells and talks back to the teacher.  The reasons he does these behaviors may very well go back to his younger childhood and parents, and the basic emotional needs he was deprived of.  He is making the choices that meet his emotional needs, and giving him “computer time” as a reward for not yelling at the teacher isn’t going to meet his emotional needs – that’s why it doesn’t work.  My point in explaining how the schools don’t focus at all on a child’s conscience, guilt, shame, or remorse is to further demonstrate how truly ineffective we are in disciplining problem behavior children.  Nobody in the school can develop the kind of parent relationship that would make these internal feelings effective in controlling these children’s behavior.  In other words, we can’t be their parents, and develop in them such essential internal character qualities as feeling guilty when you did wrong.


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