Parenting: Guilt or Empathy?


Over time, there has been a slow but steady change in the way parenting has been looked at. There are still many who hold faith in more orthodox measures of parenting, but for the large part, society is starting to change the way it looks at misbehaviour by children and the punitive actions taken by parents. While there is a general consensus that violent punishments by parents should be totally done away with, there exists a debate about whether parents should use guilt or empathy to encourage good behaviour in their children.

Both the above approaches are widely used by parents across the globe, especially during the early years of a child’s life when it is still developing an abstract idea of what is right and what is wrong. During these formative years, a child’s moral compass is slowly being created; a moral compass which it will carry with it throughout its life. At very early stages, however, children often lack the ability to tell the “good” from “bad”, and therefore parents need to introduce a reward-punishment system to make the distinction clear in the child’s mind. Empathy and guilt are two such examples of tools used by parents to this end. What must be noted, however, is the observation that when parents choose one of the two approaches (when the child is still a baby), they continue to use the same approach throughout the parenting process (until the time the child matures into an adult).

The question now is which approach actually is more effective and does not hinder the holistic development of the child.

To be fair, both approaches have their merits. The use of empathy by parents is a two-pronged philosophy. The first involves the use of empathy by the parents themselves, to put themselves in their child’s shoes and understand why the child acted in a particular manner. As simple as this sounds, problems arise when the child enters the teenage years and the inter-generational gap between the parent and child becomes apparent and, in some cases, irreconcilable. If carefully utilised, however, empathy can be effective in not only communicating messages to a child, but in teaching the child how to empathise as well.

Empathy must be employed in moderation however. Empathising with a child does not in any way imply that one can encourage and condone any and every deed committed by a child, but is instead a way for parents to be able to explain the reasons for the deed and understand their child. In addition to this, the child learns by example to become empathetic towards fellow human beings in future, a trait that will help this child become a compassionate adult by nature. Empathy should only extend so far, however, and must be backed up by strong morals and principles. The ability to empathize and relate to a person and their problems can have a detrimental effect if the person in question falls into bad and influential company. In such cases, a strong sense of morality is the only thing standing in between the individual and the unethical act.

Guilt, on the other hand, is a tool most often used by parents to ensure that their child behaves in a certain way even in their absence. At very early ages, the child is showed that his or her parents are extremely disappointed or upset if he or she misbehaves. Thus, the child feels guilty and tries his or her best not to let down his or her parents. In some cases, guilt can actually lead to a child coming clean about a misdeed committed or a truth withheld. As this child matures and develops a moral compass for itself, the child automatically starts to feel guilty any time he or she does something which may be classified as “bad” or “unbecoming“. This may be likened to the developing of a “conscience“, an inner voice that speaks to one and tends to dissuade one from an unethical path.

What usually goes wrong with guilt, however, is the fact that most parents tend to use it to the point where it transforms into a more widely recognised version of itself – the guilt trip. Parents are far from infallible, and may sometimes guilt trip the child into not doing something which may actually be good for the child and make the child happy. In such instances, parents enforce their own lifestyle choices on their child, and children behave in a manner one might call “good” only to please their parents (and not because the deed is good in itself). At the same time, parents need to be careful that a reward-based system of behaviour doesn’t spiral out of control, wherein a child starts demanding something in return every time he or she behaves well.

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