Guilty Kids Grow Up To Be Good Adults

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens

Turns out, a little guilt goes a long way. Credit: 小旺旺的媽, Flickr


Maybe it's time to lay off the overbearing Italian or Jewish mom cliches. A little guilt, it turns out, is a good thing.


Guilt -- what kids describe as "that sinking feeling in the tummy" -- helps children become considerate and conscientious adults, reports The New York Times. The news comes from a University of Iowa study looking to hone in on the effect of two components that create those characteristics in adults: what's called effortful control, or exercised self control, and guilt, according to the story.

One experiment researchers performed involved adults giving a special toy to two-year-olds with the caveat that the kids be "very careful." The toys were rigged to immediately break. The children's reactions for the next minute were observed; researchers then followed the behavior patterns of the same children for five years. Two-year-olds were chosen because it is the first year they typically start to feel guilt, the Times reports.

Kids who showed they felt guilty after breaking the toy had fewer behavioral problems during the study's span no matter how they previously tested in effortful control. Kids who showed low levels of guilt but scored high in effortful control also reported fewer behavioral problems. Signs of guilt noted by researchers were squirming, avoiding eye contact, hugging themselves, hunching their shoulders, and covering their faces with their hands. The study was published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"If you have high guilt," study leader Dr. Grazyna Kochanska told the Times, "it's such a rapid response system, and the sensation is so incredibly unpleasant, that effortful control doesn't much matter."

How guilty a child feels is part nature, part nurture. Researchers have not been able to identify a parenting style that effects guilt levels, the Times reports. But parents should make sure children don't confuse guilt with shame -- when a child feels like they are a bad person. One way to ensure that distinction is to focus on the problem and offer a solution, according to the story.

In other words, don't let Johnny cry over spilled milk. Just have him clean it up.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.