Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame have been classified as emotions that reflect self-consciousness and enforce morality, and that function as a way of constraining behavior to societal norms. As such, instilling feelings of guilt and shame are a central component of childhood socialization. Precise definitions of guilt and shame have varied; some have argued that the critical component of shame is public exposure of one's wrongdoing or inadequacies, while others identify shame as self degradation and feelings of worthlessness. In both cases, shame involves the desire to hide from others. Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with a desire to apologize, make reparations, and be forgiven. In distinguishing guilt from shame, some define guilt as stemming from a focus on one's bad behavior, in contrast with shame's focus on the global self; others see guilt as private, a matter of one's conscience, and shame as public, a matter of one's reputation.

While guilt and shame are, most likely, inevitable aspects of childhood, children's experience of these emotions is influenced by social factors, including cultural beliefs and practices. Anthropologists have often distinguished cultures on the basis on which of these two forms of socialization is emphasized. Historians have often described certain religious beliefs as resulting in an unusual degree of guilt in children, such as those emphasizing an uncertain relationship with God or the unworthiness of followers. Indeed, ERIK ERIKSON's analysis of the life of Martin Luther suggests that guilt was a key element of his childhood, which he then transferred to his emphasis on original sin in his version of Christianity. Children's experiences of guilt and shame are particularly influenced by patterns of DISCIPLINE and peer group activities.

Patterns of Discipline: Shifting from Shame to Guilt

To the extent that shame is related to the experience of public exposure, societies that rely heavily on public discipline will incur greater shame in children than those that emphasize more private discipline. Japanese children, for example, are exposed to relatively high degrees of shaming, in that wrongdoing is identified and corrected publicly, both at home and in school. For example, James Stigler and Michelle Perry describe a Japanese elementary school math class in which a child who was unable to draw a cube correctly was repeatedly sent to the blackboard to try again, each attempt being critiqued by his fellow students until he was able to do it correctly. The child's sense of right and self-worth is thereby made contingent on overt group approval. This pattern of discipline stems in part from broader ideals that emphasize the needs of the group and encourage group conformity. Guilt and shame are self-conscious emotions, and as such, are tied to culturally variable notions of self. Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have argued that a number of non-Western cultures emphasize an interdependent self, one which is tied to group membership and would be more shame prone, while modern Western cultures tend to emphasize an independent self, separate from group membership and more prone to feelings of guilt.

Public shaming was also characteristic of early Western societies, however. Historians have been especially interested in the transition from shame to guilt in childhood discipline between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and particularly in those areas that became the United States. Shame was widely used in colonial America, sometimes bolstered by physical punishments. Children who misbehaved were routinely subjected to public ridicule by siblings or, still more commonly, other community members. Scolding was deliberately conducted in front of an audience, as were spankings or whippings. Children also participated actively in the shaming of others, not only other children but also miscreant adults, such as those put on public display in order to be reviled in the stocks, or those hanged in public. The experience of childhood, therefore, was influenced both by eagerly shaming others and the possibility of being shamed (although we can only speculate as to the impact of these experiences). This shaming tradition was long carried on, in schoolrooms, by the practice of forcing a misbehaving or poorly performing child to sit in a special corner, viewed by his classmates, sometimes wearing an identifying dunce cap or some other marker in addition.

In family discipline, however, a major change occurred between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Discipline now became largely private. A characteristic ploy, widely reported in diaries and prescriptive literature alike, involved isolating an offending child, sending him (or, more rarely, her) to a solitary room, sometimes for days, to subsist on a meager diet. The goal was to induce introspection about the offending act and, through this, provoke an ultimate admission of guilt–upon which point the child could be readmitted to the loving family circle. Shame was not fully removed from this approach, for other members of the family would be aware of the proceedings, but the real goal was guilt, and the capacity to experience or anticipate guilt for future offenses as well. Guilt measures were particularly applied to childish offenses seen as dangerous or as carrying the potential for bad character in adulthood. Thus signs of sexual interest, including MASTURBATION, came in for special doses of guilt. The capacity for guilt was increasingly equated with maturity and was seen as critical to shaping good character. Not surprisingly, the excesses of guilt figured heavily in the treatment of disturbed children by the end of the nineteenth century, especially in Freudian therapy.

Although adults are an important part of children's lives, we cannot assume that children's actual experiences of shame and guilt directly inscribed adult guidelines. Shame came under increasing criticism, but it was still a part of children's lives. In part, this resulted from parents, and particularly teachers, who continued to use shaming in the face of expert advice to the contrary. However, children's peer experiences were also important contributors to their EMOTIONAL LIFE, and children continued to shame each other. In the nineteenth century, groups of boys induced conformity through peer pressure and the threat of group shame (e.g., the practice of publicly "daring" a timid boy to display courage).

The spread of consumerism among children from the late nineteenth century onward intensified yet another instigator of shame. By the 1890s, many observers noted that children who could not keep up with the latest styles in clothing or toys often felt shame. Children's efforts to conform to peer standards in consumerism throughout the twentieth century was powerfully motivated by a desire to avoid being shamed by peers. Even when adults did try to reduce shame, children might not conform. By the later twentieth century in the United States, legislation banned the shame-inducing practice of posting school grades in public–a clear sign of the ongoing power of the adult concern regarding children's shame. Many children, however, blithely reported grades to each other, maintaining this impetus for shame.

Guilt Comes Under Suspicion

The cultural emphasis on instilling guilt in children began to be questioned in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, and by the 1950s in Europe. Experts began to argue that guilt was too heavy a burden to impose on children, and potentially distorted their development. Parents were urged to develop approaches that would avoid loading children with guilt, as prescriptive literature explicitly turned against what was now seen as the excessive repression of the nineteenth-century approach to socialization. Guilt was both too unpleasant and too intense, impeding the necessary development of a sense of self-esteem–rather than motivating children to behave appropriately, it was seen as incapacitating. Psychologists increasingly viewed children as vulnerable and unable to bear the character-building practices of the prior century. The new emphasis on consumerism may also have contributed to the shift away from guilt. Without abandoning standards, it was important to allow children, in childhood and as preparation for their adult consumer role, to feel comfortable with considerable self-indulgence, including buying things and entertainments–many advertisements explicitly urged their audience to cast aside any sense of guilt in the pursuit of the good life.

To replace guilt, three alternative approaches to childhood socialization were identified. First, adults were advised to help children avoid situations that might result in misbehavior, and thus eliminate the need for reprimands. This process was facilitated by greater tolerance for certain childish behavior (e.g., signs of sexual interest). Second, parents and teachers were encouraged to offer rewards for good behavior, as opposed to punishments for misdeeds. In schools, this resulted in the introduction of self-esteem programs and reevaluating the use of bad grades as sanctions. The behaviorist school in psychology was particularly influential in developing incentive strategies to modify children's behavior and in discouraging the use of guilt-inducing punishments, which they saw as largely harmful to CHILD DEVELOPMENT. A fearful child, for example, could be guided by bribes that would reward more confident behavior in entering a dark room or encountering a pet, rather than being stunned by blame, which would only exacerbate the emotional weakness. Third, when all else failed and some discipline became essential, experts and parents alike searched for emotionally neutral sanctions to substitute for the guilt-laden technique of isolating children from the family used in the Victorian era. It was always hoped that children would respond to rational discussion, without guilty overtones. But if this broke down, two characteristic approaches were urged from the 1920s onward in the United States. First, children might be fined–thus punished–but without the emotional tirade. Second, and still more commonly, they might be "grounded"–deprived of normal entertainments (such as radio or television) or the company of their peers, for a set period of time. Again, the goal was to provide corrective deprivation without resorting explicitly to guilt.

The new approach called for considerable parental investment in both time and self control. The injunctions to arrange children's lives to avoid the need for discipline could be burdensome to parents. Moreover, parents were increasingly urged to control their own emotions in dealing with children, because of the guilt potential involved in expressions of anger. Needless to say, actual parents varied in their responses to the new advice, some noting that determined misbehavers did not respond as well as others to a guilt-free environment. But the expert injunctions were widely discussed and some disciplinary changes resulted, including widespread use of grounding as a disciplinary technique.

The overall impact of these changes on children's experiences is difficult to evaluate. While there may have been a reduction in childhood guilt, it is clear that children continued to feel guilty even in families that worked hard to reduce the guilt experience. Of course, many families, ignoring expert advice, did not even try. Indeed, other social changes offered new opportunities for guilt, including higher parental expectations for school performance and the rising divorce rate (from the later nineteenth century onward), which may have led children to feel at fault for family failure. However, the growing suspicion of guilt did result in children becoming increasingly adept at identifying their own feelings of guilt and expressing dislike for the experience. The aversion to guilt could also be used to manipulate adult behavior. By the second half of the twentieth century, middle-class children felt authorized to inform a parent that she or he was "making me feel guilty," with the goal of reducing parental criticism in the face of potentially damaging feelings of guilt. While guilt and shame certainly remain a part of children's experience, their meanings and uses have shifted considerably as part of larger changes in family, school, and peer contexts. As powerful means to develop adult behavior, these forms of emotion have become part of how we historically examine childhood experience in a culture in which a fundamental form of analysis is the examination of the self.

See also: Anger and Aggression; Consumer Culture; Fear.


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