The Character Movement

Put a Little Guilt Back in the Game

Youth Frontiers challenges young people on our retreats to reflect on their attitudes and behaviors toward themselves and others. We ask them if their behaviors live up to the values they hold in their hearts. We will say to students, “If you are making fun of someone and you don’t feel guilty about it, there is something wrong.” You should feel guilty. A sense of healthy guilt serves a purpose. It acts as a moral compass to guide one’s behavior.

In my humble opinion, our society has taken away this generation’s healthy sense of guilt. Without guilt, our kids become desensitized to their disrespectful behaviors. Living in a “guilt-free” society is not a good place to be.

Let me be clear that I am not talking about shame. Shame is an emotion that attacks the human soul rather than one’s situational behavior. Shame is always destructive because it inhibits our potential, induces fear and makes us feel unworthy of love or belonging. Brené Brown has done wonderful work and research on shame and vulnerability. Her book, “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t),” explains how shame creates disconnection and how damaging it is in our culture.

Guilt is about a person’s behavior. Shame is about the person. Guilt is a healthy tweaking of one’s conscience. It can motivate change and help us connect our choices with our values. We need, at times, to feel guilty. We become dangerous people if we do not.

My fear is that we have created a generation of young people with holes in their consciences as demonstrated by these striking statistics from a 2012 Josephson Institute study:

  • 51 percent of high school students have cheated on an exam.
  • 76 percent have lied to their parents about something significant.
  • 20 percent of students have stolen something from a store in the past year.

Let’s put a bit of healthy guilt back in the game to help kids live out their values and take responsibility for making tomorrow’s world better. Youth Frontiers helps students take responsibility for creating a culture of respect in their schools. But we’re just one piece of the puzzle. It takes parents, businesses, schools and communities to ingrain character in our culture.

Today’s kids will become tomorrow’s business leaders, politicians, lawyers and teachers. We need to remind them now that admitting they made a mistake is OK and that taking ownership when they’re wrong is the right choice.

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