When I visit my mother in her care facility, I see how children lift the spirits of the elderly. I’ve put bold type on a couple of ideas a friend of mine used with her own daughter’s visits:
I used to pick up my daughter every Wednesday from kindergarten and make the hour-long trek to see my father-in-law at his nursing home. I also went to the library in the larger town, shopped at Costco, and ran other errands during those Wednesdays. Sometimes I even brought other children with me.
I dressed my daughter in a cute outfit, often a frilly dress, and encouraged her to think of something to tell her grandfather.
On Halloween, she went in costume.
I saw this as a win-win situation on several fronts
My father-in-law got a visit from a sweet girl who loved him, was happy to bestow kisses and even sit on his lap.
The other residents of the home got to see a pleasant child who always brought something clever with her:
- The latest kindergarten project that I didn’t want. (I took pictures of great projects and kept those. Carolyn freely gave them away. Who can forget the time she showed up on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday wearing a top hat made out of construction paper? All her “fans” in the home told her how adorable she was.)
- Flowers or a piece of nature. My daughter was great with dandelions.
- A balloon. (Who would have thought of that? The last belly laugh I got out of my father-in-law came from batting the balloon with Carolyn.)
My daughter learned that people are worth visiting and not to be afraid of the elderly or those in wheelchairs.
She grew up to work in a nursing home in college and took her sweet nature for the patients with her. Once she even took time to discuss a woman’s weightier questions about life and death and eternity as a result of not being afraid.
Tweetable: An elderly friend or family member might appreciate a visit from your children in their Halloween costumes. Click to Tweet
I have noticed that very young children are quite honest and open about their wrongdoing.
A child who is told to stay in the living room and not come into the kitchen will slide one foot into the kitchen and then look at the adult to see what they will do. The child is not hiding what they are doing– it’s more like they are experimenting to find out what will happen.
What the adult does next matters
One little girl saw some pretty headbands with sparkles at a friend’s house where she was playing. As Chloe and her mom were walking home, the mom noticed Chloe holding the sparkly headbands. “Where did you get those?” “From Hannah’s house.” “Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.” So they marched right back and returned the headbands to Hannah and her mother with an apology from Chloe.
What did this little girl learn about wrongdoing and guilt?
- Stealing is wrong. I should not take what doesn’t belong to me.
- When I do something wrong, the way to handle it is to go back and acknowledge what I did.
- The apology should come from me, not from my mother. No one else is responsible for my actions.
- When I admit what I did and apologize, I am forgiven and the relationship is restored.
Incidences of wrongdoing are a valuable learning experience for children. The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way the child will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.
Imagine this mom had behaved differently. What different lessons might be hard-wired into Chloe’s internal guidance system?
“Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.”
- Response #1: “Oh. Well, I’m sure it’s no big deal. They’re just hair bands.” And they keep walking.
- Lesson #1: Stealing is no big deal. You don’t need to address it. OR: It’s better to not let people know if you’ve done something wrong.
- Response #2: Seeing the hair bands and pretending not to. Saying nothing.
- Lesson #2: This is acceptable behavior.
- Response #3: Taking the child back to return the hair band with the mom apologizing to the other mom.
- Lesson #3: I am not responsible for my actions– my parents are. It brings shame on them when I do something wrong. My parents need to right the wrong, not me.
- Response #4: Yelling at the child, bringing the issue up multiple times, shaming the child in front of others.
- Lesson #4: I am a bad person because I did this. If I do something wrong in the future, I should hide it.
The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way children will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.
Tweetable: Your reaction to children’s wrongdoing gets hard-wired into their internal guidance system. Click to Tweet
Guilt is generally a negative term. It’s a feeling heaped on us by others that makes us feel bad and decreases our emotional health. Some of us also heap guilt upon ourselves. It weighs us down.
Is there ever a place for guilt?
Is it ever helpful? I would say yes– and I might consider renaming it “conscience” or “healthy guilt” when it comes from the internal guidance system inside us as opposed to being heaped on us from others.
A working moral compass makes children stronger
As children get older, their conscience is what bothers them when they have done something wrong. Often it prompts them to right a wrong, make amends, or apologize… all of which promote personal and social health.
There’s a place for sadness over what we have done
When a criminal has been convicted, we watch to see if they feel remorse– sadness for what they have done. That is guilt… a healthy response to one’s own wrongdoing. When someone feels no guilt for obvious and severe wrongdoing, society considers them a sociopath.
How can we help children develop an internal moral compass– a conscience– but without the negative baggage that guilt brings? How can we help them not just have a change of actions, but a change of heart?
I welcome ideas from readers as I am thinking through this issue.
Is there such a thing as healthy guilt? Is there ever a place for guilt in childhood? Click to Tweet
Our rules for children are tools we use to protect them from the damage that results from violating natural law. Until they grow up to understand and incorporate moral laws into their own minds and hearts, they need our rules.
Children easily see how violations of the physical law of gravity will injure them if they’ve jumped off a wall that’s too high, but perhaps have a more difficult time seeing how breaking moral laws will weaken their reason and conscience. They need our help in forming their internal guidance system.
Adults understand the universal laws that govern life,
like the laws of justice or gravity or liberty–laws that are both natural and moral. We know that these laws are not arbitrary–violations of these principles bring destruction in their wake.
Isn’t that why we start with simple rules when children are young?
Your 3-year-old knows he must brush his teeth before bedtime each night and that is because you understand the law behind the rule (the second law of thermodynamics which states that things tend toward disorder). If your child doesn’t brush his teeth, they will decay. You insist on instilling this habit because you know what cavities can lead to, even though he does not.
As children mature we help them understand the reasons for the rules.
We communicate verbally and non-verbally that we are most concerned about how breaking moral laws degrades the mental faculties that recognize and respond to good.
At a time when the Buddha was teaching his son Rahula to live a life of integrity, the eight-year-old told a deliberate lie. Nearby was a bowl with very little water left in it. The Buddha asked, “Rahula, do you see the small quantity of water left in the bowl?” “Yes,” replied Rahula. “As little as this,” the Buddha said, “is the spiritual life of someone who is not ashamed at telling a deliberate lie.”
Children need our help in forming their internal guidance system. Click to Tweet