Parental Guilt

The Big Picture

I’ll return to Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Parenting in a future post – I love the book and there is at least one more discovery I’d like to share!  But I have recently started reading another book:  Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas.  Now he’s definitely an evangelical, and there is an undercurrent of judgment in his theology that I find disturbing.  I do NOT believe in eternal damnation!  But Gary is also a compassionate and insightful guy, and one of his chapters really caught my attention.  It’s about GUILT.

chalk drawing

Parenting is tough.  It is the hardest thing I have ever done, in fact.  And no matter how good we are as parents, we can always do better.  There is always a gap between what we hope for, and what we actually do – and because very little matters more to us than our kids, that means guilt is an unavoidable part of parenting.  And in my experience, guilt can be a healthy motivator, or it can be a millstone.

In a healthy sense, guilt is meant to alert us to a problem.  It’s the emotion that signals we’re doing something wrong, and that something needs to change.  Guilt feels awful, and it’s supposed to – that’s what motivates the change.  I remember once when our kids were very little:  I got angry for some reason and showed it – loud voice, maybe I slammed something down on a table.  I looked at our youngest son and realized I was really scaring him.  The guilt that hit me was like a physical force.  I felt terrible, but it was a wake-up call.  It started a process of growth and healing for me not only as a parent but as a person.   That’s healthy, productive guilt.

Marriage and parenthood are people-making processes.  We all fail along the way, we all run into trouble.  There’s tension in relationships, there are mistakes and lacks in parenting.  When trouble comes, when guilt slams home, that’s when growth happens.  Those hard things are our summons to grow.  It’s then that we need to reach down deep inside ourselves, it’s then we need to depend on God – and it’s then we need to remind our children that we aren’t perfect parents.  Perfection belongs to God alone and we all, parents and kids alike, need to look to God as we learn and grow.

There is, however, a toxic guilt with which I am also familiar.  Because we are imperfect, and because parenting happens in the midst of life that is just simply too fast and too complicated, we can always do better.   As one friend says, we “should” on ourselves, all too often.  Any lack of parental perfection becomes a reason to berate ourselves.   A generalized guilt, a sense of failure and unworthiness, hangs around our necks like a millstone.

This is NOT healthy guilt.  It does NOT lead to constructive change – rather, it sucks the energy, the joy, and the creativity out of life.  It makes us into “glass half empty” people.  My own rule of thumb is this:  if the guilt is specific, if it refers to something particular that can be changed, it could well be constructive.  But if it is general, and lacks a particular focus – if it does not point you to a particular problem – then it’s probably toxic.  You can say to such a feeling:  “tell me something constructive or go away!”

Theologically speaking, we are not miserable sinners trying to claw our way to a passing grade.  We are God’s beloved, accompanied in all we do, living in the midst of grace and goodness.  As parents, both we and our children are beloved and in the care of God.  Sure – we’re not perfect.  So there will be times when guilt is necessary to motivate change.  But I think we can take the millstones off, and enjoy ourselves a bit more!   Let’s pay much more attention to the “half-full” side of the glass!


This practice is for you as parents.  It’s a version of the examen of consciousness, an Ignatian or Jesuit practice. 

At the end of each day, take a few moments to review the day:

  • Begin by reminding yourself that you are God’s beloved son/daughter, and that God loves you.  Really.
  • Go through the events of the day, and try to be sensitive to these things as you remember each event:
    • When in this day did I notice blessing, goodness, God?
    • When in this day did I turn towards God, and God’s way for me?
    • When did I turn away from God, and God’s way for me?
    • Give thanks for what has been good, and set an intention around anything that calls for change or growth.

As you turn towards sleep, give yourself into God’s care until the next evening.  

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