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?
A change of heart is the realm of the spirit
Spiritual perspective has to do with whether guilt leads to sadness for what the child has done. Guilt is a healthy response to one’s own wrongdoing. When a criminal has been convicted, we watch to see if they feel remorse. When someone feels no guilt for obvious and severe wrongdoing, society considers them a sociopath.
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.
Is guilt ever helpful?
I would say yes–- when it comes from the internal guidance system inside us as opposed to being heaped on us from others. A child’s internal guidance system gets educated by watching role models exercising their moral code and from sacred writings of their faith.
- Focus on what the child can do differently next time.
- Agree that the behavior is wrong. Avoid judging the the child’s character.
- Deliver consequences with empathy.
- Clarify positive outcomes that result from stopping the wrong-doing and starting to act differently. The uncomfortable guilty feeling goes away, replaced by the internal joy felt from doing the right thing.