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Developing Your Child's Conscience Without Creating a Guilt Monster.

February 22, 2018

We’ve all seen it, that kid who runs around knocking into people without noticing it.  And then there’s the kid who’s always afraid they’re in trouble, even when they haven’t done a thing. Two ends of the same spectrum and let’s be honest, they’re both tough to parent. So how do you hit the sweet spot fostering a healthy sense of conscience without creating a guilt monster?


The answer is actually buried below the surface of the behaviors you’re noticing (I'm shrink rapping, would you expect anything less?). I’ll keep this straight forward, stick with me. Think of it this way. If we want to know what kind of a tree it is, we check the fruit; we see an apple and our question is answered. View kids like trees. Watch your child’s behavior to identify where you think your child falls on this spectrum of healthy conscience vs. guilt. Excessive guilt occurs when there is too much focus on empathy for others while lack of conscience is when there’s too little focus on empathy for others. Let’s define a few common words as we kick this off. 


Merriam-Webster says:

Guilt: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously


Guilt leads us to feel remorse:

Remorse: a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs 


We feel guilt and remorse because we have empathy:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.


The goal is to help your child develop empathy for others so they experience a healthy sense of guilt when they cause others pain. This leads them to feel accurately remorseful and motivates them to have a desire to make things right. Seem like a big task? It’s doable. I promise. Here are a few easy steps.


#1 Pay attention to what the behavior means: For example, if you notice your little Sarah is unware that she’s saying things that hurt her friends’ feelings, you might decide she needs more practice understanding what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes= more empathy for others. On the flip side, you might notice little Johnny is feeling guilty a lot, even for things that he didn’t do. You might decide he needs more practice letting himself off the hook and realizing he’s human too= more empathy for himself.


#2 Create Goals from what you notice: From your newfound awareness (i.e., “Sarah needs more empathy for others”), you decide you need to help Sarah learn to think more about how others feel, so she can be more sensitive and aware of when she crosses the line (i.e., so she experiences remorse). On the other hand, Johnny (who blames himself too harshly) you decide he needs help to think more about his own feelings, so he can be more aware of when he did his best and things are not his fault (i.e., so he experiences empathy for himself).


#3 Make it happen: Choose a few interventions from your goal. This takes some creativity, here are a few ideas to get you started. It can be helpful to read your child books that have a character who goes through something difficult (i.e. Mr. duck loses his favorite shoes and has a bad day at school). Pause at key points in the story to ask your child about how they think that character is feeling throughout the story. You’ll be tempted to teach here, DON'T. It’s critical that they do this alone because it allows them to develop neural networks that foster empathy. This benign “story time” is loaded with intentionality because it allows your child to practice (without realizing it!) the skill of consideration for others. Or, in Johnny’s case, to learn to accept his mistakes and flaws as a normal part of being human.


Noticing peoples’ needs can be difficult even for the best of us. Another idea to encourage your child to begin noticing people around them is to create a challenge for them in which you set aside a small amount of money ($1-5) and inform them that this cash is for them to spend on someone they notice might have a need. They carry the cash with them as a physical reminder to keep their eyes open for someone who they think might benefit from a little encouragement. This feels very exciting and powerful for a child. It lets them see things with new eyes, increasing their awareness of others and empowering them to be the source of a positive action. There are loads of effective ways to create these targeted interventions- feel free to share your ideas below!


#4 Praise them when they get it right. After all this effort you’ve made, you MUST run the ball all the way down the field for a touchdown; be sure to notice the smallest things they do related to budding empathy skills. I can see, you get it.



The nutshell: Watch your child to identify what skill they need to develop, (i.e., more empathy for others? More for themselves?). Create interventions to help them practice the skill you’ve identified. Don’t let them know you have a secret plan, try to make things as fun as you can so they follow your enthusiasm. Allow your child to have as much ownership and control as possible while they learn, praising them even when they make even small movements in the right direction.  



Shrink rap that! is open to your feedback. If there’s a topic you’d like to see here, let me know you’d like me to shrink rap that! Also, if you have comments or questions related to the current post, feel free to share them below.


Check back soon for an upcoming post on how to engage with your kids so they actually listen to you. Ha! We’ll SHRINK RAP THAT! next. 


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