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Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.
Gwen Dewar Ph.D.

Is Parenting Guilt Inevitable?

Some parents have unrealistic—and historically unprecedented—expectations

Guilt is a good thing. It’s a moral emotion associated with sympathy and a willingness to correct wrongs. Research suggests that people prone to feelings of guilt are more likely to handle their anger in constructive ways. People who lack feelings of guilt are sociopaths.

But many parents—parents who are conscientious, responsible, and caring—feel weighed down by too much guilt.

Guilt about everyday things. Like daycare. Sleeping arrangements. Television. Family meals. Discipline.

This sort of everyday guilt seems very common. Is it universal? Is it inevitable?

I don’t know, but I suspect not. I mean, I don’t doubt that conscientious parents everywhere experience pangs of guilt when they think they aren’t meeting their kids’ needs. But it’s not clear that parents everywhere are equally guilt-ridden.

Consider these points:

1. Parents in different cultures may not feel guilty about the same things.

If you are a Baka forager, for instance, you aren’t going to feel guilty about letting your child stay up late at night. Nor are you going to feel bad if you don’t spend time each day playing games with your kids.

It’s hard to find people who are more caring and indulgent of young children than the Baka. But they don’t see any reason to enforce regular bedtimes. And they don’t expect adults to play with kids. That’s what kids do with each other.

Or let’s compare two modern, industrial nations.

According to an ethnography conducted in the 1980s, many parents in communist China felt less guilty than American parents did about placing their kids in all-day preschool or daycare. Why?

The Chinese parents were more likely accept daycare as a necessity. They also believed that all-day preschool would deliver special benefits. It would help counteract the effects of parents and grandparents who were spoiling their kids at home.

2. Different cultures may promote dramatically different attitudes about parents and kids.

As anthropologist David Lancy notes, modern, affluent Westerners often view children as cherubs. The parent’s job is to cherish and serve the cherub, to make him happy and prepare him for an adult life of happiness.

In other societies—particularly traditional, agrarian societies—the relationship is different. Parents love their children, and they take care of them. But they aren’t in the service of their children. Kids are expected to serve their elders.

You can imagine how this might influence a parent’s feelings of guilt. You aren’t trying to design the ideal, carefree childhood. And you aren’t trying to build a superhuman. You are a busy parent—with multiple kids—and the kids are supposed to contribute economic value to the family.

3. Realistic parents remind themselves of the big picture–and avoid irrational guilt trips.

As a writer who popularizes child development research, I often hear from parents who want to create the ideal environment for their kids.

It’s not a bad goal. In fact, it’s a probably a rational goal if you live in a fluid, information-based society where healthier, better-educated people rise to the top.

But it’s unrealistic to think we can maximize benefits for our children in every domain. That we can give kids everything.

Even if we were willing to make every possible sacrifice for our kids, we would still have to make choices. Our time and energy is limited. We can’t buy ourselves everything we want. And we can’t give our children everything that is good and worthwhile.

Yes, you can train your child to be an Olympic athlete or a concert pianist or a math whiz. Depending on the circumstances, that might be the best course for your child. But there will be less time, energy, and money to spend on other stuff.

This applies to virtually everything. Should you kick the kids out of your bed? Should you let your kids watch TV? Should you buy that frozen pizza?

If we take an unrealistic, one-sided view of things, we label every compromise as bad. And we feel guilty.

But it’s our job to make those compromises. Even if we were the most competent parents in the world, we would still have to make trade-offs. And that really is a human universal.

More reading

For a fascinating perspective on the ways that modern Western childhood differs from childhood in traditional, non-Western cultures, read David L. Lancy’s eye-opening and spectacularly insightful book, The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, and changelings. Nobody who is seriously interested in human behavior should miss it. And don’t forget to check out Lancy’s fascinating blog for Psychology Today, “Benign Neglect.”

For more talk about the unrealistic expectations some parents have, see my post "Parents: Learning is wasteful -- so let's get over it."

Other references:

Tangney JP, Wagner PE, Hill-Barlow D, Marschall DE, and Gramzow R. 1996. Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. J Pers Soc Psychol. 70(4):797-809.

Tobin JJ, Wu DYH, and Davidson DH. 1989. Preschool in three cultures. Yale University Press.

This article originally appeared in the post, "Parenting guilt and raising superkids," for the BabyCenter Blog. Text © 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

About the Author
Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., is a writer and anthropologist interested in how parents, peers, evolution, and cultural forces combine to shape the way kids learn and grow.

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