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How kids develop sense of guilt

By JOHN MUTURI | August 3rd 2013


A child’s feeling of guilt originates from her conscience, the part of her mind that tells her she has broken a rule and that she should feel bad about it.

However, a conscience is not present at birth. A newborn baby has no sense of right and wrong, and hence, doesn’t have guilt feelings. As far as a baby is concerned, when she wants something, she should get it. A baby only thinks of herself.

Parents are the major influence on the development of their child’s conscience. From birth onwards, a child identifies with her mother and father. She wants to be like them and begins to behave like them. But identification goes further than this. She begins to think like them and adopting their attitudes and values, their feelings, and their moral views.

By the age of three, a child is able to make elementary decisions about minor moral issues — for example, whether she should play with a kitchen knife when she has been warned not to. She feels bad after realising she has broken a rule.

Within a few years, she has internalised many of your attitudes to right and wrong. In effect, she knows how to behave even when she isn’t with you telling her what to do. Your conscience has become hers, and one indication of this is that she experiences guilt when she breaks rules.

Break a rule

Psychologists have studied guilt feelings in children by placing them in situations that tempt them to break a rule. One classic investigation of this type used a large room that had a rabbit in a hutch in one corner and a pile of toys, comics and sweets in the opposite corner. One child at a time was taken into the room and asked to watch the rabbit while the experimenter left for short moments. The child was strictly warned, not to leave the rabbit to go over to the ‘goodies’ in the other corner. After several minutes, the inevitable happened — the lure of the toys and sweets became too much. The child wandered over to the ‘goodies.’ As soon as she did that, the experimenter (who was observing the child through a one-way mirror) pressed a switch that made the rabbit disappear down a concealed trapdoor.

When the child eventually returned, she was shocked to see the rabbit had gone! And at the precise moment the experimenter burst into the room demanding to know what had happened to his rabbit. The children’s response varied from total denial to reluctant admission and tears.

Through such studies coupled with detailed observations of children in a variety of natural settings psychologists have identified the following techniques for encouraging the development of a healthy sense of guilt:

Helpful tips

  • Explain rules to your child in terms she can understand. Simply spelling out rules will not encourage her to feel guilty when she breaks them; also tell her why her actions are wrong —for instance, because it upsets you.
  • Make moral rules clear and specific. When she smashes her best friend’s toy car, instead of saying, ‘It’s not nice don’t upset people,’ it’s more effective saying, ‘Don’t break someone else’s toy because they will cry and they might break your toy in return.’
  • React reasonably when she misbehaves. The most effective punishment is that which is balanced against the seriousness of the offence. A punishment that is too extreme can fuel resentment, rather than her guilt feelings.
  • Never smack your child when she beaks moral rules. Constantly smacking a child doesn’t stop her behaving that way in the future. It simply encourages her to be more secretive to avoid punishment, and it also reduces her feelings of guilt.










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