Last Saturday my nine year old daughter made her first batch of hot cereal for the family. As she stirred the cup of Cream of Wheat into the boiling water on the stove, she called out \”This is going to be so good! I can\’t wait to eat this cereal…Yum!\”
Sitting next to each other at the counter, she kept watching for my reaction as I took the first bite. \”Wow this is great! Especially for your first time ever making it\” I said. And I wasn\’t lying. She had made a delicious breakfast that not only tasted good, but induced wonderful memories of my mother making the same creamy white cereal for me when I was in grade school.
Then I scooped up a large, hard lump of cereal that had not been stirred in properly as it was being cooked. My breakfast bliss with my daughter was disturbed with feelings of shame. You see, along with the nice memories were the memories of times Mom hadn’t gotten everything just right. In the rush to get 8 kids out the door for school, mom’s inattention sometimes produced clumps of cereal. I would flatly refuse to eat it. Even after she offered other options for breakfast, I’d chose to go to school hungry. I remember consciously trying to make my mom feel bad. Not because I didn’t love her (she was the center of my world still), but because I knew that Mom would feel guilty and then do whatever she could to make it up to me in some way. I didn’t realize this then, but I admit now, that in some ways I was entitled and manipulative.
In my work with families so many mothers—and even dads– are racked with guilt over not being perfect. They have bought into the belief that if they don\’t always make their kids happy, or if they disappoint them in some way, they are bad parents. On top of that the kids will let their parents carry this burden around because it often leads to an eventual positive reward.
In your mind you might be saying “Serves you right for being a little stinker Tim. You deserved to go hungry.” But my experience shows that when it comes to you as a parent, you often find yourself caving in under the pressure of guilt yourself. Maybe you aren’t around as much as you’d like to be. Perhaps you couldn’t hold up your end of a bargain. Or could it be that your child has blamed you for the predicament they now find themselves in. How do you constructively manage guilt feelings?
Here are five guidelines I suggest using:
1. Ask yourself if there is any truth to what you are feeling guilty over. Sometimes guilt can be a great catalyst for change, use it as such, not as a tool for torture.
2. Ask what the “intents of your heart” were. Did you mean for something to happen, or to produce the results you are now witnessing?
3. Project your child ten to twenty years down the road, when they are an adult. Would they feel the same way about you now that they can look at the situation through your eyes?
4. Recognize how being guilt-ridden yourself, causes you to try to smooth the path in front of your child, so much so, that they aren’t maturing or gaining empathy. They can in fact start to expect their practiced entitlement and manipulation to be accepted and rewarded by the world at large.
5. Just let it go. Forgive yourself for your weaknesses, and realize that sometimes it’s not YOUR issue.
To your family’s happiness!
Tim Thayne, Ph.D.
P.S. Does this topic strike a nerve for you? Watch for a follow-up to this in April’s “Notes From Home” newsletter.