Guiding children

raising children with love and respect

Responsibility and guilt

The feeling of responsibility is a tough one to deal with, even as adults.

Our generation fights with all it’s might against every kind of  responsibility. We want to stay young, careless, daring and fun – i.e. being freed from the responsibilities of tomorrow. But that would be the days of our children growing up. We would really like to stay cool as parents, doing all kinds of fun and exiting stuff and always just be having a laugh with the kids. Well, that’s not gonna happen. Try and laugh at a crying baby, or smile at a violently resisting 3 year old – it won’t help either one of you.

The responsibility of being a parent is basically to care, about everything. It’s indeed not what we usually find sexy. The role of the concerned, the organised, the foreseeing person, but also the ever wiping and cleaning, the ever teaching, nagging, scolding or enthusiastically applauding person – is somehow far from the cool ideal we strive for as teenagers. And these days we all seem to want to stay teens forever. It’s strange considering teens are wildly insecure, searching for themselves in a world not caring one bit about their individuality. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

A child needs to learn, step by step, to take on manageable responsibilities. Like picking up their toys, helping out with household duties or keeping promises (just make sure you don’t make them promise too difficult stuff). But they need a lot of help and guidance with every step they take: the time and practice to get their trousers on, the instructions on how you wash your hands thoroughly or how to wipe your nose. Nothing is easy, without the knowledge of what to do, how to do it or even the motor skills needed to do it, at first.

So most of all, children need to be released from a lot of responsibilities. Because most responsibilities don’t belong to them, they belong to us, the parents and adults. Like it or not.

This means we shouldn’t ask them for their opinions on important decisions, like whether or not to take the job in another city and so moving the family.  To a child, all change is supposedly bad. As are generally any rules that come between them and their wishes. They wouldn’t know of the possible benefits.

So, in complicated or moral issues, you need to think about your children’s needs without always involving them in the deliberation. It can’t be up to them to decide on what’s best for them (candy or a banana for a snack?, more TV or that healthy walk in the park?) – but they can and should be asked about their wants and wishes – once we narrow it down a bit, and keep the questions to be about matters that concern them(what kind of candy they want for Saturday, or where they would like to go on an outdoor excursion). Then their interests can be seen to within reason.

Children are by nature egocentric – they feel they are the center of the universe, because, well, they are in a way. At least the center of their own universe. This means they can easily think they are the cause of all kinds of trouble (And sometimes they are, but it’s not their fault, because they are children. That’s what children do – cause trouble. Our job is to protect them from harm, and from causing it, as much possible.)

But most of all, it’s actually not their fault, like if the parents are fighting or if grandma’s ill or if little Joey starts crying. They need to let go of a lot of guilt.

Guilt is what happens when you think you are the reason for bad things happening. It causes anxiety, sadness, sometimes repression – you push away the memories of it all because it’s just too much to handle, only for all those feelings to leak out later on, infecting many more areas of your life. The younger the child the more impact all bad feelings can have on their self esteem, their perception of themselves and their understanding of the world. It can cause a lot of stress, fear and anxiety.

Young children, who can’t really know what’s right yet, shouldn’t feel guilty – but gently be taught how to make things right, preferably before, but then again when they go wrong (see Punishments?).

Later in life, a bit of guilt is what builds our conscience and sense of morality. There is nothing wrong in feeling shame and guilt sometimes, when there is reason to do so. Everybody makes mistakes. It shows that we care about what other people think, and that’s a good thing, a social skill. It makes us try and make things better, to ease that bad conscience. Trouble is when there is too much guilt, and not enough forgiveness within. It paralyses, infects your self-perception or causes unreasonably high levels of anxiety.

We need to help our children let go of impossible standards, that can cause unnecessary feelings of shame or guilt.

  • No one expects them to be anything but themselves. They are good just the way they are.
  • Teasers are just stupid people, who haven’t learned how to behave properly. We feel a bit sad for them.
  • They can ask us about everything they feel insecure about, we’re there to help.
  • Making mistakes will not be the end of the world, everybody makes mistakes sometimes – we just try and fix it afterwards.

A child is a child and cannot take on the responsibilities of an adult or a whole society. We need to lift the weight off their little shoulders, telling them it’s all right, we deal with it, they can let go and relax. We need to be the ones making the decisions, to prove that we are the responsible ones.

This is a matter of leadership. A leader can (and in parenting let’s go with “should”) be democratic, listening to the needs and ideas of the group, but they make the final decision. Because they have the responsibility for the outcomes of the decisions made. That’s what leaders do. Take on responsibility. Both for investigations and deliberations, decisions and outcome.

That is why a leader also researches different possibilities, initiates things, organizes things and teaches things:

They need to make sure decisions are as well deliberated as possible, with the best interest of the whole group at heart. The leader needs to make sure that decisions made are understood by all parties. Needs everybody to act upon it as safely and well prepared as possible. The leader needs to make sure everyone involved can play their part and feel reasonably good about it.

Yes, it’s easier said than done.


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