Creative Child

Why Guilt Is a Necessary Emotion for Guiding Moral Behavior

by Deborah Song

Perhaps more than any other emotion, guilt has earned a bad rap. Its stigma is through association though. In the context of Freud and other religious hang-ups, guilt is synonymous with shame. But there is a healthy kind of guilt, research shows, that promotes introspection and social cooperation, which is very different from shaming someone.


While you don’t want your child to feel bad about who she is, which is shaming, nor do you want her to feel responsible for things outside her control, which can induce anxiety, reflecting on what he or she has done wrong and how your child’s actions have affected another person will help a child learn from his errors and motivate him to rectify the situation.

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Unlike the more primal emotions like sadness, fear, and anger, guilt emerges a little later in life, as a child begins to grasp social and moral norms. Children aren’t born knowing how to say “I’m sorry,” researchers at the University of Virginia found. Rather they learn over time that saying “I’m sorry,” appeases parents, peers and even their own consciences.


Of course, a child’s age and disposition need to be taken into account. Some kids are more guilt prone than others and may require a gentler touch. The point in encouraging kids to reflect on the consequences of their actions is to encourage self-motivated goodness. Here’s how.

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1.    Connect the dots between cause and effect. Proper guilting connects the dots between your child’s actions and his consequences. It’s important to focus on the action and ways to repair the damage incurred without making him feel bad about who he is. “Look, your friend is crying because you took his toy,” you might say. “Can you give it back to him?” More likely than not, you may already be guilting your child the right way. But covering up a child’s wrong without giving him the proper chance to reflect on what he has done will lessen his motivation in the future to avoid improper behavior.

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