Feeling guilty over what we’ve done or not done, how we did “it” or why, or what we’re contemplating or fantasizing about doing is probably a universal parenting experience. We’ve been taught that our actions are either “right” or “wrong,” and thus we constantly judge ourselves as either “good enough” or “not enough” based on this judgment (and/or we judge other parents and they judge us).

“Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.”

~ Bishop Robert South

Guilt doesn’t make us better parents

The problem is that feeling guilty doesn’t serve us or our children and it only reinforces the notion that our loveability — and that of our children — is conditional. In other words, when we do “right” we believe we’re worthy, loveable, keep-able but when we do “wrong” we suddenly think we’re unworthy, unloveable, and easy to discard. When this is what we believe and experience ourselves, this is the legacy we pass on to our children.

Scott Noelle of EnjoyParenting.com has a great substitution for our guilt. When we feel guilt, let it redirect rather than reduce us. He describes the scenario this way: “You’d simply feel ‘off’ whenever your behavior was out of alignment with your values. That ‘off’ feeling would be a welcome sign that you need to adjust your course. And with your self-worth beyond dispute [because you know you’re loveable regardless of how you behave], you’d be confident in your ability to get back on track.”

So, if you want your child to live with less guilt than you’ve had, the best place to begin is to change how you treat yourself when you “goof up.” Give yourself a break. Cut yourself some slack. You’re human. You are learning. You aren’t always at your best.

Let guilt be like a bell that quickly wakes you up. Allow it to ring once and then refuse to hold onto any feelings of unworthiness. When you hear its ring, simply make a choice to behave differently and remind yourself that, like your precious child(ren), you too are learning and growing with every new experience. The less guilt you use on yourself, the less you’ll use on your children and the cycle will be broken.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

~Frederick Douglass