The Secret to Letting Go of Parental Guilt Once and For All

Parental Guilt -- Yikes!Isn’t it amazing how even the smallest things can so unexpectedly trigger a tsunami of guilt in us parents?

The way another mom at the playground rolls her eyes when you pull out a bottle to feed your baby. The shocked look a dad at Target gives you when you hand your toddler candy to get him to sit in the cart. The look in your 6-year-old’s eyes when your temper snaps after her tenth time out of bed after 10 pm.

If you’re like most parents, guilt is your constant companion, right?

But, parenting wasn’t always this hard. Nor did it go hand-in-hand with the feeling of guilt.

As a matter of fact, when I was a kid (and probably when you were, too!), gangs of unsupervised “latchkey” kids biked around the neighborhood in idyllic freedom while their parents were at work. And, when my parents were kids, moms held a cigarette in one hand and a baby in the other while the big kids watched TV all day long, and no one batted an eye. Go back a few more generations, and you’ll find eight year olds running the house and taking care of their siblings while their parents are out farming.

Compared to our ancestors, our kids have it made.

And, this generation of parents might be the best parents in history. We start educating babies before they’re born. We track every developmental milestone throughout their lives. We hover over every failure and rejoice over every success.

How did we get from there to here? If we’re such great parents, why do we feel so guilty? And is there anything we can —or should —do to stop feeling so guilty?

A Little History of Modern Parenting Can Help Us Understand Guilt 

A Little History of Modern Parenting At the dawn of the twentieth century, most people thought of children as an asset, not a responsibility. Sure, for the first couple of years they were pretty helpless and cried a lot. But by the time they could walk and talk, they were expected to be contributing members of their families and of society. They were caring for younger siblings, working in the fields on the family farm, and making money in factories.

Of course they didn’t experience the idyllic childhoods we hope to create for our kids today, but their parents also didn’t feel guilty about their children working hard or having hard days. Children were expected to be useful, strong, and resilient —just like everyone else.

In the twentieth century, that started to change. Child labor laws protected children from working, which gradually led to parents having fewer expectations about how children should contribute to the family. Obviously this change was good and necessary, but there were ripple effects. We stopped thinking of kids as assets and started thinking of them instead as long-term investments: projects that we had to put a lot of work into before we got anything back.

Or, as Peter Stearns puts it in Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, we stopped thinking of them as resilient and started thinking of them as vulnerable. It was a fundamental shift in the way we thought about kids, and it led to a natural conclusion: if kids are vulnerable and fragile, then they’re vulnerable to us as parents. If something goes wrong —if our kids are unhappy or struggling in any way —then we must be responsible.

In other words? If your kids have problems, it’s your fault.

But the Truth Is, Parenting Is Not As Big a Deal As We Think

It’s true that we as parents influence our kids in ways that no one else can. But although kids are vulnerable to our influence, it’s also true that they’re resilient —incredibly so. And while they do need for us to be the best parents we can  be, they don’t need for us to protect them from the world —or even from our own honest mistakes.

Because, no matter how much influence we have over our kids, in the end, they aren’t part of us. They’re separate individuals who are responsible for their own mistakes and decisions —individuals with the ability to overcome adversity. Ultimately, your child’s success or failure in life isn’t on you. It’s on them.

And so the first step in letting go of guilt is to recognize your limitations.

There are thousands of factors that come together to shape the person your child will become. Some of those factors have to do with your parenting, but many of them are completely out of your control. And at some point —sometimes a lot sooner than you expect —your influence will diminish to almost nothing, and you’ll be left hoping you did a good job, or at least that you still have a good enough relationship with your kids that they’ll talk to you sometimes about the problems resulting from your mistakes.

And that is totally okay.

Because you aren’t meant to be central to your child’s life forever.

They’re meant to leave you, and at some point in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be more relevant to their history than you are to their present. The mistake that’s making you feel so guilty today will look very small from your child’s future perspective. If you’ve done your job right, your child will be able to look back with a smile and say, “Oh, that? It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.”

If you’re feeling guilt because of everyday, normal mistakes, it’s time to let go. Your kids are not holding onto every little thing you do wrong, and you shouldn’t either. Ask forgiveness if you need to, and then just keep telling yourself: it was a mistake, and it’s in the past.

Parenting Experts Are Great, But They Don’t Know Everything

If you have a hard time putting parenting challenges in perspective, you’re not alone. And it’s not surprising, because we live in a world of parenting information overload. Millions of mom blogs enable you to compare yourself to other parents and imagine that they’re doing better than you are. Thousands of parenting books quote experts telling you everything you’re doing wrong.

Heck, you can’t even log into Facebook without getting bombarded with contradictory parenting advice: Have a natural birth, have an epidural; cosleep, sleep train; vaccinate, don’t vaccinate; homeschool, support public schools; protect kids more, give kids more independence; make them play outside, make them practice math; be more strict with discipline, practice gentle discipline… the list is endless.

Combine the belief that you are (almost) solely responsible for success of your child with today’s unprecedented access to expert parenting information, and you end up with the nagging feeling that you have to know everything and do everything perfectly. How could you think otherwise? With so much to learn and so much at stake, it just make sense to learn all you can and do all you can to be better.

But the truth is, experts can only take you so far. And being a truly fine parent —even a great parent —isn’t something you can learn secondhand.

It requires that you learn from yourself. That you learn from your mistakes. Most of all, that you learn from your kids. Which means that at some point, you have to stop trusting the experts and start trusting yourself.

As a Parent, You Need to Learn to Trust Yourself

When I was pregnant, I was terrified of how little I knew. Like many of you, I decided to educate myself by reading —a lot. I read incessantly about pregnancy, birth, and babies. With no personal experience to help me judge what I read, I took it all at face value and believed every expert I came across.

Until I came across a book that changed my thinking about parenting forever.

It was recommended to me by a friend who I respected. I started it eagerly, ready to learn everything I needed to know about parenting a baby. But just a few pages in, I started to feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me, but the attitude of the book felt wrong to me. The writer talked about babies like they needed to be controlled in ways that I wasn’t comfortable with. I wasn’t even a parent yet, but my instinct told me that this book didn’t match my parenting philosophy.

By the time I finished the first chapter, I was upset enough to Google the book. I discovered that it was the only parenting book that had ever been condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The feeding methods it recommended was associated with too-low weight gain for newborns and failure to thrive.

And in that moment, I realized that even though I didn’t know much about parenting, my instincts were good. I knew more than I thought I did.

And that’s true of you, too. You know more than you think.

There’s only so much you can learn from experts. You can get ideas and try new techniques, but ultimately, no one knows your kids better than you do. No one knows your parenting goals better than you do. And you and your child are the final judges of your parenting choices.

Trust yourself, and you’ll learn to recognize when guilt is coming from inside you and telling you an important message, and when it’s coming from some outsider whose opinion doesn’t matter at all.

Guilt Can Be a Good Thing. If You Leverage It.

Which brings me to the third way to overcome guilt: use it.

There’s a reason you feel guilty. Sometimes you feel guilty because you’re trying to be perfect, and your goals are too high. Other times, it’s because you’re listening to an expert even though you disagree with them, so you’re torn between what you truly believe and what you’re being told to do. But sometimes, guilt is the voice of your inner heart, and it’s speaking to you for a reason.

If you pay attention, it’s not hard to tell the difference. This third kind of guilt is the one that matters —it’s what motivates growth. It’s the guilt you feel when you realize that your parenting choices don’t match your beliefs.

You’re doing something you don’t like. Maybe you’re yelling. Maybe you’re being too critical. Maybe you’re just missing out on opportunities to enjoy your kids.

The Secret to Letting Go of Parental GuiltThat kind of guilt is a good thing. So let it change you. Let it be your motivation to sit down with your kids, look them in the eyes, and tell them you’re sorry. Admit to them that you made a mistake, and ask them to help you come up with a better solution for next time. Let guilt be your inspiration for positive action that can help repair your relationship with your kids.

When you do that, you’re not just overcoming guilt; you’re teaching your kids how to handle mistakes. It’s one of the most powerful and important lessons they can learn, and you’re teaching it by example.

What’s more, as you start to act on the good kind of guilt, you’ll find that the wrong kind of guilt starts to lose its grip on you. That judgmental stranger in the checkout line? She might not bother you anymore. In fact, you might find yourself giving her a big smile and a witty comeback in response to her evil glare.

Because you’ll know that your parenting choices align with your values. And when it comes to your family, your values are the only ones that truly matter.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Ready to stop feeling guilty? Think about this:

  1. What triggers feelings of guilt for you as a parent? Think of a specific situation.
  2. Which of the three types of guilt are you feeling? —guilt from high expectations, guilt from other people or experts, or guilt from not living up to your own beliefs?
  3. What action can you take today to help you let go of guilt?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Over the next week, when guilt hits you, pay attention. Identify which type of guilt you’re feeling, and respond accordingly.

And don’t forget to come back here again next Monday — we’ll look at how we can give more freedom to our kids in this dangerous world that we live in — without feeling guilty in the process :) (Sign up here if you haven’t already done so, to receive the article directly in your mailbox).

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  1. Farleyagain says

    One thing that stands out in the post is the idea of parenting goals. On one hand, a parent has a particular image of themselves as a parent (the fine parent, the excellent, patient, kind, winning parent) and on the other hand, there is the true goal of parenting: an adult child who can manage successfully (i.e., to do well and be kind but with appropriate boundaries, to choose good solid friends, and all the other ways you want your child to deal with life) in the world they will live in. These goals are not necessarily completely separate (such as the modeling example above), but they are different goals and different parents approach them in different ways.

  2. lola b says

    I’ll read it again but already i feel kind of good and have a little smile on my lips.
    All these years there is this guilt of not providing well financially to my children. A part of me tells me what more can you do,a single parent of 5? Not to mention other people telling me i’m doing fine.
    So is this guilt from high rxpectation??sure will find out…got to pick up grandkids from school.
    See you….

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      lola b, You are so involved with your kids — helping out with grand kids and still reading parenting sites — I think its definitely time to leave your guilt behind!!! Here’s an Emerson quote that brings me a lot of solace… I hope it will bring peace to you as well –

      “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

      • lola b says

        1st you make me smile,now you make me cry …
        Ahh its just this headache!! I want to do some reading it wont leave me alone.
        I’ll catch up tomorrow. Thank you very much for what you guys are doing. I didn’t have you then but i have you now

  3. Janel says

    The third type of guilt just hit me in my head. The guilt motivates me to do so much but then it becomes overkill. I know for a fact that when I was 2 years old, my mother wasn’t doing half of what I do now. So where is all this coming from?It’s just too much pressure.

    As a working mom, I suffer from the “I could be doing more” guilt. Because my time with my daughter is limited, I think I overschedule with so many activities and events just to make sure she is reaching her learning milestones. However, at some point I just need to relax and realize that all that I’m doing is completely unnecessary. I should plan when necessary but sometimes just enjoying the moment is really all that matters. I’m afraid that I’m going to burn myself out.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Janel, one of the things that worked for me, at least when it comes to over-scheduling was to put a hard limit on the number of activities I enrolled my daughter in.

      Both for her sake and mine, I have a limit of “no more than 3 organized activities outside of school” rule. Several of my friends whose kids are the same age as my daughter have their kids enrolled in 5-6 activities, and when I attend their piano recitals or hear stories a kung-fu belt ceremony, I’m very tempted to enroll my daughter in those classes as well. Having a pre-set limit and talking about it with my daughter has helped a lot in keeping that impulse in check.

      Perhaps trying something like that for a few moths might help?

      • says

        Lola, that’s a great idea to pre-set a limit! — especially useful with school-age kids who want to do everything their friends are doing…teaches them to choose, prioritize, and set limits. :) Another thought that helps me is remembering how important unstructured play is, too. Sometimes kids learn more by being bored than they would ever learn in hundreds of educational activities! Have you read Nurture Shock? Great book, and there’s one chapter that talks about how kids need self-directed play to develop executive function. Basically, if kids don’t ever get the chance to plan their own activities and organize their own structure, they don’t gain social skills or the ability to self-regulate. So sometimes sitting back and doing nothing is the best thing you can do for your kids!

        Also, don’t ever forget this kid: Wonderful things can happen when kids are bored.

        • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

          Thanks for that link, Lisa! I hadn’t heard of Caine’s story… it’s so cool.

          Yes, wonderful things can indeed happen when kids are bored (maybe not on caine’s scale, but still, really beautiful and wonderful things) — I can vouch for that. This summer is the first time my daughter is staying at home for 2 months straight ever since she started day care at the tender age of 8 months (*sigh* — but that’s a whole other story). I was worried if we’d have a lot of “I’m bored” moments and had lined up a few camps to send her to if things got really bad. So far she hasn’t gone to a single camp. It does help that grand parents are staying with us and they play with her a lot, and I do have to get her started on something to get her engaged every so often, but overall it is working out great! It’s been the best summer so far!

          And as Lisa said, I think she is learning a whole other skill set than if she would have been in summer school or a summer camp…

  4. Krupa says

    I am suffering from guilt that I have not trained my kid we’ll to eat… Compared to other kids he eats only countable items.. Others say that I m not trying well… I think I have tried a lot… Is it guilt from others? Myself? Confused.. Stressed… Please help..

    • says

      Oh, the picky eating! Yeah. I swear my daughter eats fewer foods than she used to. There are foods that she used to love that she now insists she hates and won’t touch. It’s soooo frustrating! Personally, though, I really doubt that you trained your child to do that! Picky eating is SO normal at certain ages. Toddlers live on air and cheerios. If you really think there’s a huge difference between him and other kids his age, then it might be worth talking to your doctor about possible causes…sensory issues or something like that. But guilt is totally unnecessary here, for sure — you’re offering him healthy food, which is your job — eating it is HIS job! If he’s not able to eat when he’s hungry, then maybe there’s something more going on that you should explore…but definitely not something to blame yourself for!

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