Many parents assume that shame and guilt are synonymous—that they are two words for the same internal, not-very-pleasant feeling that occurs when we’ve done something of which others disapprove. However, researchers looking at the development of emotions in children feel it’s very important to distinguish between them shame and guilt, for parents to understand the differences, and for parent to steer clear of instilling shame whenever possible.
So, what are the differences? There are two that stand out:
· First and most central, there’s a difference between shame and guilt in where the person feels the error or “deficiency” lies. In the case of shame, the entire “self” is perceived as bad. In the case of guilt, the specific action, rather than the “self” is perceived as bad. For example, a child who feels shame over having broken a precious knickknack might say to herself, “I’m a bad bad girl,” while a child feeling guilty might say instead “Oh dear, I should have been more careful!”
· A second important difference is in the actions which tend to follow once the misdeed is discovered. In the case of shame, because the internal feeling of being bad is so distressing, the person’s inclination is to flee the scene—to escape—or even more problematic, to blame the victim. Our little girl, for example, might say to herself, or even aloud, “It’s Grandma’s fault for leaving it there!” In contrast, a person who feels guilty, rather than trying to flee, is motivated to try to make amends, to right whatever wrong was done, and to prove it was a one-time-only lapse in judgment. In this case, our little girl might say, “I’m so sorry, Grandma! Maybe I can make you something pretty to take its place.”
Why does it matter whether a child tends to feel shame or to feel guilt? Because research shows that feelings of shame are more likely to result in hostility, depression, and a lack of empathy for others.
Given that all kids misbehave at one time or another, how can you avoid instilling a sense of shame? Quite simply, watch what you say! Instead of saying things like “You’re a bad girl” or “I’m disappointed in you,” emphasize the consequences of the misdeed, why you disapprove of the child’s behavior, and what can be done to make amends. Remember, children who are told often that they are “bad” gradually find themselves living up to your expectations in what psychologists call a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There you have it. Some important information to help you make sure your child is on the path to healthy emotional development.
(And don't forget to encourage your child to use signs. Sign language for babies is a great way to make start a baby or toddler on the way to feeling good about him/herself!)
Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis