When I was three, I attended pre-school on Manhattan's East Side. Every morning I'd ride on the back of my mother's bicycle through the park to the basement room where we'd spend the morning finger-painting or drawing.
The latter portion, and my favorite, was devoted to music. The music room was upstairs, sunny and bright. We sat in circles and sang, songs about our names and the moon and animals. I loved to sing and I wasn't shy. And I loved the songbook, illustrated with Kate Greenaway pictures of children in long dresses and bonnets, that we used every day. I have no very clear recollection of the teacher, save that I loved her, was pretty sure it was mutual, and that she had short hair. What I do remember clearly is, one day, coming upon her canvas tote bag in the corner of the big music room seeing the songbook, with its distinctive cover illustration of children gamboling around a maypole, sitting there in plain sight, its edges peeking out of the bag. I thought, oh, she's forgotten the songbook! We need it! I'll bring it to her.
I probably expected accolades; instead I got the sharpest rebuke I'd ever experienced in my short, charmed life, a lecture that to this day has left me a conscientious respector of others' space and privacy, to the exclusion even of a medicine cabinet or a boyfriend's open email account. I do know I could never look her in the eye again, and that I began to sit as far from her as I could, never singing loudly enough to be heard. Nothing had ever felt as bad as that sudden, arbitrary loss of approbation, that sense that the world was a thing out of my control, and the realization that good intentions, in this life, count for very little. The fact that I remember it 25 years later, after experiencing actual bad things and doing worse, says a lot for the value of formative experience, and the impressionable nature of a child's psyche.
So I couldn't help but feel alarm when I read about the "guilt studies" being conducted at the University of Iowa (detailed in John Tierney's "Findings" column today) in which a toddler is put in the position of breaking a "valuable" toy, so that researchers can assess their reactions. The study was designed
to isolate the effects of two distinct mechanisms that help children become considerate, conscientious adults. One mechanism, measured in other experiments testing toddlers' ability to resist temptations, is called effortful self-control - how well you can think ahead and deliberately suppress impulsive behavior that hurts yourself and others. The other mechanism is less rational and is especially valuable for children and adults with poor self-control. It's the feeling measured in that broken-toy experiment: guilt, or what children diagnose as a "sinking feeling in the tummy."
It's not as sadistic as it sounds - the findings are important, and the children are apparently reassured at the end that they've done nothing wrong. But, young as they are, I wonder if this won't stay with some of them as a sign of the very arbitrary nature of the adult world. It's funny that one's guilt should be strongest when one has the least control or power over the world, and indeed, the least ability to cause injury. By the time moms are laying it on you, it's lost a lot of power to shame. But as anyone who's raised or spent time with children knows, responsibility can weigh on them heavily. (I once heard a medical professional describe guilt as "a manufactured emotion." Tell that to a 2-year-old.) And I don't know that you even need to experiment with young children to figure this out: the number of adults who carry similarly indelible memories of shame could probably provide conclusive proof!
Guilt And Atonement On The Path To Adulthood [NY Times]