Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of a confessional booth
in a small hamlet of devout churchgoers. In just a few Sundays,
you discover, to your bemusement, that almost every parishioner is
racked with guilt about this or that indiscretion - but they each
think they are the only blemished souls, while they view all other
townsfolk as upright citizens. If only they would forego their
virtuous appearances and share their truths with each other, they
would feel so relieved to see they are not alone!
So it is with parent-guilt. Parents everywhere agonize in
secret: "Where did I go wrong? Will my child be damaged
because of what I did, or because of what I failed to do?" To
make matters worse, these days there is so much more information
out there about what babies and children need; we have doubled the
fodder for self-recrimination. Gone are the ancestral days when a
casual attitude to children's feelings left our forebears largely
untroubled by what happens to a child.
|Guilt weighs all the more heavily now that so many
of us have plumbed the depths of what felt "toxic" about
our own childhoods - thanks to the many hours in therapy and
personal growth workshops, the piles of self-help books on our
nightstands, and of course, thanks to Oprah. We are the first
generation to be swearing, en masse, not to do it like our parents
did. And then there is that fleeting moment when you catch
yourself wondering what your child will tell his or her therapist
about you one day! Yegads!
And so, we worry in private about how we rate as parents, how
our actions will affect our kids. So painful is this festering
guilt, we tend to keep it buried; a conversation we have with
ourselves in the quiet of the night. Rarely do we show one another
how out-to-sea, out-of-control and vulnerable we sometimes feel.
The result: most of us tend to live in an illusory world where
parents all around us look as if they are coping so much better
than we are, and we are alone with our quirks, pitfalls,
ill-temperedness and embarrassing lapses in attentiveness.
Much as I long for guilt-relief however, I cannot stomach the
glib remarks often used to give parent-guilt the brush-off.
"Don't worry about kids, they are resilient", goes the
mantra - and if we could only believe it, our worries would go
away. The hard fact is that every parent will sometimes, without
necessarily realizing it or intending it, cause their children
In one way or another, each one of us is wounded, and our own
role models were imperfect. We cannot quarantine our children from
our own humanly limited abilities to care and respond. Sooner or
later, in every parenting relationship there is call for remorse,
making amends and even apology. And though it makes us
uncomfortable, our babies and children have every right to protest
against us when we let them down. We make claims about children's
"resilience" - but do we ourselves have the
ego-resilience to hear them out, when they point squarely at our
So, what can we do when we make the painful discovery that
something we have done has caused our child to hurt? And how can
we deal with the guilt that comes up? Before we go any further,
let's look briefly at what guilt actually is.
What is this thing called guilt?
Guilt and remorse are very different; in fact they are
opposites. Remorse is about the other: it is about allowing their
feelings, listening with empathy, and it is about the desire and
effort to repair any hurt we may have caused.
Guilt, on the other hand, is self-focused - and is about
beating ourselves up. By definition, guilt is the fear of
retribution. Guilt gnaws at your guts while it tells you
"Look what you've done, what kind of a parent are you? You
should have known better!" As a pre-emptive measure against
the judgment of our peers, guilt strikes the first blow against
ourselves. As guilt becomes hard to bear, it cloaks itself in
denial, with rationalizations like "Oh, I'm sure he'll be all
right", "She is resilient", "Those are just
crocodile tears" - ad infinitum.
||True remorse in action builds love; it heals, it is
the very thing that allows us to move on and let go. Guilt, on the
other hand, is a blind alley that keeps us stuck, and alienates
our children from us. Though it is a natural and universal human
reaction, it is one of the most corrosive of all emotional states
- and it does nothing to help relationships grow.
The good news is that the key to letting go of guilt may be
simply a question of perspective. If you sometimes agonize with
parent-guilt, I'd like to suggest a few fresh ways of looking at
yourself and your relationships that might bring you some release.
Should learners feel guilty?
We generally don't mind acknowledging that we have more to
learn when it comes to our hobbies or our professions. Why should
parenting be any different?
Pay attention to the things you tell yourself about you as a
parent. The guilty self-talk that sometimes plagues our minds can
sound quite alarming - it includes statements such as: "I
have damaged my child! I am a bad mother! I am a failure as a
father! My child will grow up to be dysfunctional!"
Do you ever talk to yourself that harshly when you make
mistakes as you learn in other areas of your life? Sure, some of
the mistakes we make as parents can have a big impact on our kids,
and we should not take our responsibility lightly. But does that
warrant attacking ourselves?
Most parents feel they should be able to handle parenting
better than they do, and then become disappointed in themselves
when parenting feels harder than they expected. If this is true
for you, ask yourself how you came to expect so much from
All parents are learners!
Sometimes it helps to see ourselves in a larger context. How
expert should we all be as parents? Most people seem to assume
that humans have always raised their children the same way, in
happy and loving families. The fact is that the further back you
look in the history of what we call civilization, the harsher and
more neglectful parenting was - and this is true for a majority of
the world's cultures.
I know of no better antidote to the "guilts", than
finding out that parenting is an ever-evolving work in progress. A
quick glance at the evolution of parenting through the ages does
wonders to liquidate our sense of guilt, and replace it with
humility and excitement for learning and growing as parents.
During the Victorian era, European parents scarcely involved
themselves in the messy business of child-rearing. The wealthy
employed nannies for this onerous task, while the rest sent their
children to work, often as young as four. Child labour laws were
not enacted until the middle of the 20th century.
The Middle Ages through to the Renaissance saw a majority of
parents off-loading their babies to paid wet nurses, and evicting
their children to live as apprentices or oblates to the Church.
Most parents shunned close bonds with their children. Both at home
and at school, children were regularly and savagely beaten. The
whip, birch or cane were standard features in every classroom and
|For historians of childhood, the documents make
this quite clear: across all the major ancient civilizations, from
Athens to Rome, from Egypt to China, from the Inca to the Aztecs,
childhood was a nightmare. Few children escaped the kinds of
treatment we now classify as abuse, child sacrifice was rife, and
millions of children were abandoned.
As modernity gathered pace, the evolution of parenting
accelerated. Corporal punishment, for instance, is fast
disappearing. Yesterday's spanking is today's smack on the wrist
(in Australia, that is). In grandma's day it was the wooden spoon,
and in the 19th century flogging was de rigueur. Today, it is
illegal in 34 countries for a parent to smack or in any way hit a
child. A further 23 nations are preparing to introduce this law,
and the list is growing rapidly towards worldwide prohibition.
The commitment to treating children respectfully is a
surprisingly recent innovation. International awareness about
child abuse first came into being when a concerned American
pediatrician coined the term "battered child syndrome"
in 1962. Prior to this, violence against children was not deemed
to warrant public scrutiny. The art of breastfeeding was almost
wiped out by artificial formulas during the 1960s and 1970s. With
the help of dedicated counsellors and lactation experts,
breastfeeding is painstakingly clawing its way back, though a
generation of role models was almost lost.
Most of our generation were protected, fed, clothed and
educated by devoted and loving carers - but few of us can say our
emotional needs, as babies and toddlers, were deeply and
consistently met. As the next rung on the social-evolutionary
ladder, we seem to be the first generation (or two) to concern
ourselves en masse with children's emotional health. Ask your
parents how it felt for them to be a child - and if your
grandparents are still around, ask them the same question. You'll
probably find that most (though not all) would have fed their
babies under strict schedules, and routinely left them to
"cry it out". Most of them would have used corporal
punishment liberally. Most would have been caned at school and
experienced much harsher conditions than what we allow today. For
most of us, this is our psychological heritage.
Given this legacy, can you still expect yourself to be an
expert at meeting your child's emotional needs? We are
collectively beginners, trying to heal ourselves while creating a
new model for empathic parenting. Considering this historical
backdrop, is it easier for you to acknowledge and forgive your
For sure, we all have blind spots and as parents we
occasionally stumble. Some of us are good at empathy but have
trouble asserting strong boundaries. Some can be very assertive as
parents but at times lack sensitivity. Some of us seem to relate
better to toddlers than to babies, or vice versa. Nevertheless,
because of the new emphasis on healthy emotional development
around the world, an opportunity exists to create a new society
through our honest efforts to grow as parents.
Still feel guilty?
Who said listening to our children would be easy?
Empathy can be a hard-won skill. Psychologists and counsellors
spend hundreds of hours learning how to listen to people's
feelings so that they feel heard. Despite all that training and
even after years of experience, not one of us can claim that we
don't need to keep improving our ability to empathize. Good
listening requires a conscious effort to be humble, open, and to
set judgment and expectations aside - we can keep learning this
So why are we surprised when we have an empathy lapse with our
children? It's fine to be remorseful, but why do we beat ourselves
up? If even professional listeners need to keep learning and
practicing their art, is it not OK that parents have much to learn
about listening too?
Who said we were meant to cope by ourselves?
The supportive village that all parents need is largely missing
from our culture. Parenting is done in private, and many parents
have never touched a baby until they have their own.
||The more anthropologists and social scientists
understand about human parents, the more emphatically they
conclude that we were designed to raise children in small
co-operative groups, and not in nuclear families. Parenting is
meant to take place where help is always at hand, in a collective
setting where even the children begin rehearsing child-rearing
skills from a young age. By the time an adolescent reaches
adulthood in such a society, he or she is already thoroughly
familiarized with how to care for children of all ages. When we in
the West find ourselves struggling, not knowing what to do with
our child, we risk blaming ourselves unless we ask ourselves these
two questions: "Do I have all the support I deserve?"
and "Did my elders show me how to interact with babies,
toddlers and children?"
Here is one of the most important ideas that all parents should
understand: parenting is not meant to be as hard as it feels for
most people. The main reason why we struggle, why our patience
runs short, is that our nuclear-family situation is entirely
un-natural, unreasonable and unsustainable. The fact that it is
normal does not absolve it from being unhealthy. No parent is
meant to be at home alone with one or more children; it is
Nature's design to always have a fresh pair of hands nearby that
we can turn to long before tiredness becomes exhaustion.
So, the next time you find yourself reacting impatiently
towards your child - and then recoiling in guilt - tell yourself
this is a sign that you do not have enough support as a parent.
Reaching out and hanging out with other like-minded parents can be
so rewarding, while saving you and your child a lot of anguish. If
your extended family is not available, you might like to join one
of the many natural parenting groups in your area, or form your
own. Consider this an essential, not a luxury.
Compassion instead of guilt
There is one last reason why sometimes we don't respond to our
children in the most appropriate way. Next time your child's
behaviour presses your buttons until you respond in a regrettable
way, take a few moments to look inward. Try to recall how you were
treated when you behaved in similar ways to your child, when you
were about the same age. Remember how that felt from the inside,
in the body of a child. In most cases, when we give our children
less than the patience and sensitivity they deserve, this springs
from a deep emotional wound dating back to our own childhood. In
the course of my work, many parents have shared with me some deep
regret about how, at one time or another, they have disappointed
their children. A journey into their own childhood memories is
always ripe with revelation; shedding new light on their own
reactions, and replacing guilt with compassion for themselves.
Two benefits reward the self-inquiring parent: one is the
relief from guilt that re-connecting with inner child feelings can
bring. The other is how this opens our hearts even more towards
When we do something that wounds those we most cherish, this is
a signal that something in ourselves wants healing. It is not a
time to beat ourselves up. Certainly, if our child is upset he or
she needs our help, and perhaps our apology - and we should give
these freely. But we also need to attend to our own need for
healing, self-compassion, understanding and growth.
|A group of psychological researchers in New York
were once working with mothers for whom the sound of their babies
crying was so grating that they found it very hard to comfort
them. Since having a baby was so unpleasant to them, these mothers
showed signs of Post Natal Depression. When asked to describe
their own childhoods, many shared stories of abandonment, maternal
remoteness, detachment and even abuse. Many of these mothers broke
down and cried bitterly as they told their tale. What the
researchers discovered next was most uplifting. Once the mothers
had grieved openly in the presence of a caring individual, they
found themselves spontaneously reaching out to their babies and
lovingly comforting them in their arms. The babies' cries had lost
the power to trigger their mothers' long-held pain.
Parenting does not improve simply because we avail ourselves of
better quality information and advice. What most transforms our
relationship with our children is the inner work: our willingness
to learn, heal and grow.
A mother I once worked with found that her relationship with
her daughter had soured when she became a teenager. She found
herself often becoming angry at her daughter and feeling critical
of her. Their relationship was increasingly conflicted and on
their worst days, mother's and daughter's feelings for each other
approximated hatred. The mother felt mortified with guilt, and
anguished about the growing distance between them. That is, until
she began to take an active interest in how her own relationship
with her mother felt to her when she was a teenager. Her own
mother had been incessantly nit-picking and judgmental of her, and
had "never said a kind word to her as a teen". As an
adolescent she felt alienated, ashamed and angry. No wonder she
found it so difficult to relate to her own teenage daughter - she
had never been allowed to be a teenager herself. As she shared
this with me, she wept with anger and sorrow.
By shifting her focus away from her outward behaviour, towards
how she felt inside, the mother's judgements about her daughter
began to dissolve, and her guilt and self-recrimination began to
lift. The more compassion she felt for herself, the more
acceptance she had for her daughter's natural adolescent
characteristics: her moodiness, her strong opinions, her
questioning of authority and her thirst for adventure. Mother and
daughter were soon talking more openly, discovering each other's
inner worlds, and a new friendship began to grow between them.
We are all familiar with the edict "Physician: heal
thyself!" Here is a new one for us all: "Parents: parent
The benefit of releasing guilt
A healthy, emotionally secure child will spontaneously protest
when they feel hurt by you, or disappointed in you - and they
don't trouble themselves to speak too elegantly! For toddlers it's
usually something along these lines: "You're a bad Mummy!
You're a silly Daddy!" Or perhaps something a little more
colorful when it's a teenager airing discontent.
I do not favour any parent accepting verbal attacks from their
children. However, unless we listen empathically and validate
children's feelings, healing and renewal cannot take place. And
here's why our release from parent-guilt is vital for the flow of
love between us and our children. It's only when we are not in the
throes of guilt, shame or inadequacy that we seem to have the
spaciousness to respect our children's right to protest. An intact
self-esteem is what makes us strong enough to really hear our
children when they say: "Dad, you let me down! Dad, you hurt
me! Mum, you didn't listen!" A fair hearing is a gift,
because only once feelings are heard and validated can love come
back, and thus we move on. Children do not harbor grudges like
adults can. Their resentment vanishes the moment they feel heard -
and next thing you know you are being told you're the best parent
in the world. But guilt or shame can lead us to stifle our
children's attempts at relationship-repair. When they claim their
grievances, we turn away, we deny or downplay their feelings and
this makes them feel unimportant. Our guilt makes us
super-sensitive, and hard to talk to.
When parent-guilt is replaced by emotional honesty, it is as if
the sun rises again for the family. Relationships become far more
pleasurable and laughter returns to the household. Your child does
not want you to grovel, to beg forgiveness, to put yourself down
or diminish yourself in any way. All he or she wants is
acknowledgment, a truthful recognition of what you did or did not
do and how this made them feel, and to see that you're interested
in learning and growing. That's not so hard; it just involves an
open heart, humility and emotional vulnerability. The rewards are
well worth it. By the way - if you can do this, you will be amazed
at how forgiving your children can be towards you.
So, what is it that makes us "good parents"?
As a father I have made so many mistakes, been so impatient,
irritable and inappropriately pushy at times, that if my
self-esteem was based on being a "good Dad", I would be
in trouble! So, what else should our self-esteem as parents be
I would urge all parents to redefine what a "good
parent" is: it is not so much about how often we get it right
for our children, it is not about not making mistakes. Good
parenting is about a willingness to acknowledge our errors and our
lapses in empathy openly, and to be humble enough to apologize
when necessary. Also, it is about maintaining an ongoing
commitment to learning, healing and growing. If we enjoy our
children for who they are and avoid taking ourselves too
seriously, this goal is well within our grasp.
An integral part of parenting - one that few of us were told
about in advance - is that sooner or later we wound and disappoint
our kids. We love them immeasurably, but we hurt them at times.
The reasons for this are legion, and it is a painful fact to
acknowledge. Usually, we seem to have our parenting "blind
spots" in precisely the areas in which we were wounded as
children - the very places where we need healing and support
ourselves. These all-too human limitations do not define our
relationship with our children. A loving relationship is not one
in which hurt never happens. The most fulfilling relationship with
your child is possible when it is regularly renewed through the
telling, and hearing, of emotional truths.