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Understanding Parental Guilt: A Gift for Mother’s Day

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

This Tips for Parents article authored by Dr. Sylvia Rimm is from a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families on parental guilt.


In surveying the participants in this seminar, there seem to be three major themes that caused participants guilt. The first involved frustration about a lack of accomplishment. In some cases, that frustration emerged because goals were set impossibly high; in other cases, it was more related to life circumstances that prevented their moving forward. The first section on goal setting addresses this issue. The other two issues that surfaced as causing guilt were feelings of inadequacy regarding general parenting and frustration in finding appropriate educational settings for gifted children. To address parenting confidence, I’ve added a section on foundations of good parenting from my book and newsletter How to Parent So Children Will Learn. Some of the participants violated some of the top ten list, but simple changes can help children significantly and will also build parenting confidence. The last section on advocacy provides some important tips on finding appropriate programming for your gifted children so they have the opportunity to learn to their ability and don’t become underachievers.

Goal Setting

  1. Envision yourself as a wise, thoughtful and experienced person—mother, wife and individual woman. You are a leader and can take initiative to make the changes you’d like over time while maintaining some of the good things you’re already doing.
  2. Write down some long term goals—three or four general ones, each on a separate piece of paper. Be imaginative, take leadership, but also be realistic. Too high expectations will cause you to feel guilty for falling short of them.
  3. Under each goal, jot down activities that will help you arrive at these goals. The activities will include action statements. Be sure these are realistic, short term, and in the direction of your goal. You’ll want to cross each off as you accomplish it, so your gains can build your confidence. Action plans can be erased, modified, or prioritized differently.
  4. Search for lifetime balance between achievement and relationships. Consider that balance can’t happen every day, or even every week—but only as part of your lifetime goal.
  5. You can’t have a perfect life, be a perfect mother, wife or woman. No one is. Stay optimistic because life is basically good and there are people you love and who love you. Your children are watching your attitude, involvement and initiative.
  6. Realistic optimism and resilience are crucial for you and your children. If you take small steps toward your goals, you will feel reasonably empowered.

Foundational Principles of Parenting from How to Parent So Children Will Learn

Although there are many variations of “right” ways to parent and your personal family values should be your guide, there are some basic principles that underlie good parenting. With the complexity of our media-driven culture, it is particularly important for families to embrace these foundational principles. In my book, How to Parent So Children Will Learn I emphasize the supportive concepts that can help parents raise happy, resilient, and achieving children. I’ve developed a Top Ten List to summarize these essential principles to assist parents. My book is now in its third edition and has been awarded a National Best Book Award by USA Book News in the Parenting and Family category. I know you’ll find it helpful for raising your families.

Top Ten List

  1. Praise moderately to avoid pressure; postpone superpraise. Praise conveys your values to your children and sets expectations for them. Lack of praise conveys the message that you don’t believe in them. Reasonable praise, like good thinker, hard worker, smart, creative, strong, kind, and sensitive, sets high but reasonable expectations that are within your children’s reach. Words like perfect, the best, natural athlete, most beautiful, and brilliant can set impossible expectations. Children internalize those expectations, and the expectations become pressures when children find they can’t achieve those high, impossible goals.
  2. Don’t discuss children’s problem behaviors within their earshot (referential speaking). Discussion about children also sets expectations for them. If they hear you talking to grandparents and friends about how jealous or mean they are, if you refer to them as little devils or ADHD kids, if they’re constantly described as shy or fearful, they assume you’re telling the truth and believe they can’t control these problem behaviors.
  3. Take charge; don’t overempower your children. Your children require leadership and limits to feel secure. Envision the letter V. When children are small, they’re at the base of the V with few choices, little freedom and power, matched with few responsibilities that go with their small size. As they mature, give them more choices, more freedom, and increased power, paired with more responsibilities. Children will feel trusted as they are only gradually empowered. If you reverse that V like this—Λ—and children are given too much power, too many early choices, and too much freedom, they are overempowered before they are ready to make responsible decisions. These children feel as if you’re taking away their freedom when you set reasonable limits. They expect to be treated as adults before they’re ready. In adolescence, the ordinary limits cause overempowered children to become angry, depressed, and rebellious because they feel powerless compared to the power they experienced too early.
  4. Build resiliency; don’t rescue your child from reality. Although children need protection, overprotection encourages dependency and oversensitivity. The V of Love must expand its limits as children mature. You can be kind without being overly sympathetic. You can do for your children without overdoing. Your children will need to learn to recover from losses and failures, without being rescued from reality. Developing resiliency will permit them to triumph over obstacles.
  5. Stay united, be willing to compromise, and say good things about your child’s other parent. Leaders in a family that lead in opposite directions confuse children. Children will not respect parents who show no respect for each other. Describing your child’s other parent as an “ogre” or “dummy” may make you feel like a good and understanding parent temporarily, but sabotaging another parent, or grandparent, will backfire, and your child will no longer respect either of you. This is especially hard after divorce, but it’s even more important in divided families. Parents and grandparents being united is important for children.
  6. Hold teachers, education, and learning in high regard. Set your children’s education as first priority. That will become most clear if they hear how much you value learning. Tell them about the best teachers you had and elevate their teachers as well. Set expectations for higher education early so they will assume education does not stop after high school.
  7. Be positive about your own work and that of your child’s other parent. If you arrive home and complain about your work daily, your children will become antiwork kids. They’ll complain about their schoolwork and household chores. If you don’t like your work, attempt to find better work, and remind them that education provides more job choices. Try hard to keep balance of work and family fun in your lives.
  8. Be a role model of ethics, activity, and hard work. Locate other good role models for your children. Your children are watching you. When you “get away with” speeding, keep too much change, or are disrespectful to your parents (their grandparents), they’ll notice. When you’re interesting and energetic, they’ll be equally impressed. You can be a good role model without being perfect, but your imperfections are showing. You don’t have to do it all. Introduce your children to friends and potential mentors who also will be positive influences.
  9. Enjoy learning experiences with your child. Too many parents of 20-year-olds have sobbed in my office because they didn’t find time for their children when they were growing up. Make time for learning with your kids and they’ll be learners forever. Enjoy and develop interest together and you’ll not have regrets, only wonderful memories.
  10. Keep separate fun time and adult status without giving your children adult status too soon. Enjoy adult life without your children. Weekly dates and a few adult vacations a year will keep you excited about life. Give your children something to look forward to. They can watch and wait and do child activities with family. Kids who get adult privileges too soon have power beyond their maturity.

Advocating for Your Gifted Child

  1. Typically you will have to advocate for your gifted child in order for them to learn in school. Invariably some teacher or principal who doesn’t understand the needs of gifted children will accuse you of pressuring your child. Please don’t let them make you feel guilty unless you are actually doing that. Stand up for yourself and your child and get a professional who knows gifted children to help you advocate for your children. Administrators and teachers who don’t know about or believe in acceleration can wear you down to the extent that you will want to stop advocating. Your child has a right and need to be challenged and learn in school. You are not alone with this problem. Seek support.
  2. If you’ve hit too many walls in your advocacy, you will have to go around or beneath or above the walls to find creative paths for your children’s education. You may have to partially home school (and you don’t have time) or partially find a mentor (you don’t have money) or find weekend or summer enrichment or extend at home what your child is learning about in school. A little boredom or repetition doesn’t hurt any child, but lack of challenge or too much boredom can cause them to become lifelong underachievers. They need to learn and they should have an intellectual peer group at least part of the time. So if you’re not finding that for your children, you should keep searching.
  3. Be diplomatic and respectful and don’t involve your children in battling their teachers. If you become oppositional with schools and your children learn to become oppositional with teachers, justified or not, that opposition can lead to defiance. It’s very tricky to avoid modeling opposition as a style that leads your children to becoming oppositional by habit. There is a great risk that they will oppose even when there isn’t good reason for opposition.


Forever, Mother’s Day will mean something special to you. Even when your children are grown, you’ll receive a call, a special note or perhaps flowers to remind you that you’ve meant much to them. There may be a few bad years, when they’re sad or mad, and you become the scapegoat, the person they blame for their problems. Be sure to remember if that happens that you needn’t feel guilty. When kids, whatever age are unhappy, mothers often become their scapegoats. Remind them that you did your best, you love them, you’re still there for them, no matter how mad or sad they are, and that you hope they’ll still be there for you. May you have many happy Mother’s Days in the future.


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