Confession: Shame v. Guilt
Updated: Aug 13
Here is the tricky part about confession: I never want my children to feel shame. I want to wrap my arms around them, both literally and figuratively, and protect them from everything that is ugly in this world. I want my kids to feel loved, joyful, excited, unstoppable, and brave all the time. I never want them to feel defeated, ashamed, unworthy, or unloved. I realize this is an unrealistic desire because we live in a broken and sinful world. But it’s true.
But here is one thing I do want my kids to feel: guilt.
There is a difference between guilt and shame, and that difference is so important to remember when talking to your kids about confession.
Jim and Lynne Jackson from Connected Families say that guilt is about what we do: “Guilt is the emotion God gives us that lets us know we’ve sinned. The feeling is caused by the status of guilt (we feel guilty because we are guilty), but God-given guilt is brave and honest about admitting those selfish actions.”
They go on to say that shame is about who we are: "Shame builds an identity of, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a bad person.” If a heavy feeling remains after a parent or child has acknowledged their sin and restored the relationship, the emotion is no longer guilt, but shame”
Guilt is about what I did. Shame is about who I am. You can read the full article here.
You guys might as well click on that link and go read the entire article because it is so good. Trevor and I did parent coaching with Lynne Jackson and it was one of the best decisions we have ever made. This post (and many others) could not have been written without them. You can buy their book Discipline that Connects with your Child’s Heart or you can check out their online courses.
Sarah recently wrote about her struggles with perfectionism and mom guilt. Confessing her feelings of inadequacy helped her find freedom and healing in Christ, allowing her to be a better parent. It is okay to feel guilty about reacting out of anger and yelling at your kids. That little feeling of guilt is the reminder that you are a sinner in need of a Savior and it’s time to confess to both your kids and God. What is not okay is to continue to feel horrible about yourself after you confess, focusing on how you're an angry and terrible parent. That is shame. That is what God wants to free us of. Subtle difference, right?
When we are talking to our kids about confession, we have to be continually reminding them that we are all sinners in need of Grace. Mom and Dad included. We all have shortcomings. But we are also God’s masterpieces and are unconditionally loved and made perfect in Him. We want to talk about guilt enough to teach without driving in the message so that it leads to shame. Parenting is so hard sometimes.
Here are some things you can do as parents to address feelings of guilt without shame:
Say your child hits and yells at her sister. How can you talk about that?
Acknowledge the behavior in a way that addresses the behavior, not the child
Don’t take your child’s consequence for them by making excuses or ignoring the behavior. It is important that children learn to acknowledge their mistakes.
Describe the mistake in a matter-of-fact, calm way, identifying the feeling and the reaction, “You are feeling angry at your sister and so you yelled and hit her.” Instead of. “What on earth are you doing?! You know better than to hit your sister!”
Follow this up with a statement about who the child is, “You are a kind girl and you really love people; that doesn’t seem to be showing your sister love and kindness.”
Avoid statements like, “You always do this, “I’m sick and tired of this behavior,” or “What is wrong with you?!” I am 100% guilty of all these statements. “What is wrong with you?!” is my go-to when I’m overwhelmed and off, but it’s a horrible thing to say. That sends the message that there is something wrong with my child, not wrong with the act of hitting.
Address the consequence of the behavior
Don’t be afraid to ask how hitting her sister made her feel. “How does that make your heart feel?” She may say it made her feel better. This is frustrating, but it happens. You can walk through how that is a temporary feeling.
Ask, “How can you fix it?” Another Connected Families gem. Ask the child how they can make their sister feel better and heal the relationship. This takes it a little further than just a forced apology.
Apologize and give an appropriate consequence.
Here is where confession comes in: I’m not a fan of forcing a confession right after the behavior and the guidance. It feels icky. Sarah and I like to include confessions in our bedtime prayers or during a confession prayer activity. But this is when modeling pays off. Sarah models immediate confession so frequently with her kids that they often confess immediately on their own accord. So awesome! I’m definitely still working on that. This is a goal, but it takes time, encouragement, modeling, and practice.
Model, model, model
Kids will pick up on the concept of confession if you talk about it and show that you need to do it too.
One of the most powerful things we can teach our kids is that we cannot change our hearts without Jesus. My son has some big outbursts because he has some big feelings. Recently when we were doing the Prayer of Examen, I shared with him that I saw God that day because I stayed really calm when I was upset. I noticed I was getting upset, prayed and asked God for peace and direction, and was able to remain calm. I explained that I’m not very good at doing this on my own, but God is working in my heart to change it. He then shared that he felt like God was working on his heart in that way too. We decided that we both needed to work on staying calm and that it was cool that God could work on us both at the same time.
As you think about this practice, remember that God's steadfast love is deeper, wider, and more beautiful than any of us could ever imagine.
"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. -Psalm 103:8-12