+ Guilt and Atonement in Children’s Development

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John Tierney writes in the NY Times about recent research into the mechanisms that help children become considerate, conscientious adults.

A long-term study at the University of Iowa aimed at isolating the effects of two distinct mechanisms.  One is called “effortful self-control:” how well you can think ahead and deliberately suppress impulsive behavior that hurts yourself and others.

The other mechanism is less rational; it is especially valuable for children and adults with poor self-control.  It’s the feeling measured in a “broken toy” experiment with toddlers: guilt, or what children frequently diagnose as a “sinking feeling in my tummy.”

Guilt comes in many varieties and is joked about: Puritan, Catholic, Jewish etc.  But psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. 

There is clearly a downside to too little guilt; there are sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also kindergartners who smack and snatch.

Says Grazyna Kochanska, who has been tracking children’s development for two decades at the University of Iowa, children typically start to feel guilt in their second year of life.

Some children have temperaments that make them prone to guilt, and some become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences.  Says Dr Kochanska:

Some children respond with acute and intense tension and negative emotions when they are tempted to misbehave, or even anticipate violating norms and rules.  They remember, often subconsciously, how awful they have felt in the past.

 Dr Kochanska’s latest studies are published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  She and colleagues found that 2-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the “broken-toy” experiment went on to have fewer behavioral problems over the next five years.

That was true even for the ones who scored low on tests measuring their ability to focus on tasks and supress strong desires to act impulsively.

According to Dr Kochanska

If you have high guilt, it’s such a rapid response system, and the sensation is so incredibly unpleasant, that effortful control doesn’t much matter.

 But self-control was critical to children in the studies who were low in guilt.  They still behaved well if they had high self-control.

Even if you don’t have that sinking feeling in the tummy, you can still suppress impulses.  You can stop and remember what your parents told you.  You can stop and reflect on the consequences for others and yourself.

What Can a Parent Do?

If your child lacks both self-control and guilt, what can you do?  Should you feel guilty?  Should you feel you’ve done a bad job of parenting?

Researchers have not been able to link any particular pattern of parenting to children’s levels of guilt, says June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University who has studied guilt intensively in both children and adults, including prison inmates.

She does have some advice for parents. 

The key element is the difference between shame and guilt.  Shame is the feeling that you’re a bad person because of bad behavior; it has repeatedly been found to to be unhealthy.

Guilty feelings focused on the behavior itself, however, can be productive. 

It’s not enough, says Dr Tangney, for parents just to follow the old admonition to criticize the sin but not the sinner.

Most young children really don’t hear the distinction between “Johnny, you did a bad thing,” versus “Johnny, you’re a bad boy.”  They hear “bad kid.”  I think a more active directive approach is needed.

She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends.

Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right.  Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor.  Parents can teach and support them to say “I’m sorry,” and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before.

That was the atonement strategy followed by the experimenters in Iowa who tricked the children with the broken toy.

After 60 seconds of angst, during which the child’s reactions could be observed by researchers, the children were asked what had happened.  They were then told that the toy could be easily repaired. 

The researcher would then leave the room with the broken toy and return in half a minute with an intact replica of it.  The experimenter took the blame for having caused the damage, reassuring the children that it wasn’t their fault.  The toy was now as good as new.

And the researchers had modeled how to say “I’m sorry.”

sole source: John Tierney’s article in the NY Times Science section on 8/25/09.   www.nytimes.com    Join the discussion at Tierney Lab          http://tinyurl.com/mmb9ro  how can parents best instill these good mechanisms in their kids?

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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