I grew up with a mother who used guilt the way a truly good cook uses salt: never too much but just enough to taste it. Mom was not one to sigh loudly, sob softly or display mournful moues when she wanted to make one of her children feel bad but she got her point across nonetheless. Such as the time, at the tender age of five, I stuffed a packet of grape Kool-Aid in my underpants that I had lifted from the local grocery store at the urging of my best friend. Pulling the Kool-Aid out triumphantly at the dinner table for one and all to see and admire my budding five-fingered discount tendencies, I looked over at my mother for her reaction. To my dismay, her big blue eyes were sad. Very sad.
“I’m so disappointed,” she told me in a low voice that fairly throbbed with pain. She didn’t say that she was disappointed in me—or what I had done—just that she was disappointed.
Believe me, that was enough. Bursting into loud, repentant tears I promised I’d never, ever do anything to disappoint my mother again. It was an impossible promise to keep, of course, but throughout my life I have done my best to avoid taking any sort of guilt trip with her as the driver and me as the hapless passenger.
Now, as the mother of two sons, I admit to having occasionally resorted to using guilt tactics of my own over the years but only as a last resort. At least, when the boys were younger I used them as last resorts. When they became teenagers, I found myself using guilt more and more as my Number One Favored Option. Unfortunately, it never seemed to work very well. I am not sure if this was because they are a) boys, or b) simply that they had become immune to my tactics because neither of my kids ever seemed to notice when I was trying to make them feel guilty.
Like the time their father and I dropped them off at the mall with clear instructions to meet us at the car at four o’clock. Four o’clock came and went. We waited fifteen minutes.
“They’re probably walking around,” I said. “Let’s wait a little while longer.”
We waited another fifteen minutes. And another. And another.
“Do either of those kids know how to tell time?” my husband began asking every 30 seconds. “Next time they want to go to the mall they can walk home.” He made several other, extremely unfatherly comments as the minutes ticked by and the car seemed to get hotter with each passing moment. Of course, the car’s air conditioning wasn’t working and naturally neither of us had a cell phone handy nor did we want to go into the mall and hunt them down. Instead we chose to wait and stew in our own hot, sweaty, parenting juices.
Finally, our sons emerged, all smiles as they slowly sauntered over to the car and got in.
“Did you forget what time you were supposed to meet us?” I asked. One of them shrugged and the other one grunted. “It was awfully hot out here,” I remarked, trying to make my voice as guilt inducing as possible. “Extremely hot. Heat stroke hot. Your dad and I thought we were going to pass out while we waited for you.”
“It’s nice and cool in the mall,” Son Number Two said.
My husband, never one to subscribe to guilt as a parenting technique anyway, turned around and barked, “Next time be at the car when you’re supposed to be!” I have to admit that his tactics are much more effective than mine.
Of course, guilt never works when I’m trying to point out how expensive something one of them wants and how if we go ahead and get it for, say, Christmas the rest of us will have to celebrate the day with a single shared gift from the dollar store. I invariably wind up feeling guilty myself because I don’t want to buy our children everything their little hearts desire while the perpetrator of this little scenario wanders away, undoubtedly wondering why Mom works herself up over every tiny request for a new electric guitar or the latest game console.
The older I get the more I have to wonder if certain people (such as my children) aren’t immune to guilt while others (such as myself) are highly susceptible. It’s either that or my mother was a far better master of the craft than I’ll ever be.