Have you ever given a gift to assuage guilt for what you couldn’t give your kids? What would happen if you gave the gift of you instead?

Guilt is a driving emotion. It is challenging to feel it and not take some sort of action to rebut it.

It’s heavy, sitting on our life and livelihoods, crushing our chests and making us uncomfortable. And it doesn’t matter the source of the guilt either, one origin is as good as the next. Why do we act on it? To feel better, to absolve ourselves of the responsibility we did something wrong, to allow ourselves to correct something we have done or caused. Who are the recipients of the gifts we use to free us from guilt’s tethers? The people closest to us.

I started thinking about guilt fifteen years ago when I witnessed the proffering of presents to family members and I knew why the giver was doing it. They felt guilty.

As such, the gift contained that underlying meaning. It pulsed with it. Touching it, running fingers over it, down the wooden sides of the clock, pulling fabric through my fingers, watching others do the same, wearing, using these things, these objects, I knew they did not come from an unburdened heart and so the offering was the same, heavy with obligation to make the giver feel better.

We have all received the guilty gift, a last-minute card, an over-the-top package bursting with inappropriateness and definite exaggeration for the occasion. How have you felt when you took the gift in your hands, when you met the eyes of the person tacitly seeking your forgiveness? Instead of just the gift given, they have shared with you their small sense of self.

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Are you a guilty giver? A divorced parent who has dodged the question although you have felt it, have you accommodated your feelings by giving something to your child to let you get to the next visitation, to let you work a little later, miss one day? Does that gift free you for the moment and let you forget that being a non-custodial parent is a bitch? And the funny thing about guilty giving is that we mostly do it for ourselves, because even younger children, who light up at your undivided presence and attention, fall apart just the slightest bit when the guilty gift is given.

It’s not just fathers who fall prey to this trap, but any parent. A friend remembers guilty gifts piling up, recalls feeling jealous and forgotten, when a cousin she lived with would receive more than she did from her career-driven mother. But even with her child’s reasoning abilities she still figured the situation out and she felt sad for that poor child. She could compare the gestures and time given to her and the lack of real attention withheld from the child getting the guilt; my friend knew she had it good. Even if she couldn’t find the words at her age, she could recognize the earnest actions for what they were, honest, liberated from any burden. To this day, she hasn’t forgotten that first taste of adult behavior.

Hey, I’m not passing judgment on anybody, just sharing an observation. I’m tipping my hat and saying, as the person who initiated my divorces (plural), I have done my share of presenting my kiddos with dirty gifts, all while secretly hoping that what I had given them was enough.

If you don’t know it yet, let me give you a gift by telling you, the kids don’t care after a while.

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Deep in the heart of the most materialistic child dwells a need to be loved and a desire to eschew every guilty gift given in favor of the quality time they crave. The validation; beautiful, freeing, changing, validation that they are loved. Early on, children see through their parents, and I have been called out even recently.

Since battling a perplexing illness for the majority of 2014, I can’t do as much as I used to. I can’t parent, or nurture in the ways that have become so familiar and comforting to me. So I ask my teens to help, and especially my daughter because she is one of the early maturers of the mind, she is one who can reason with herself, and she is an attacker. She is not a bamboozler or a distracter and so I know I can ask her, and better, she will follow through.

I bribe her, hearing the words as they tumble out of my mouth and hating myself a fraction, “If you do this, you can have anything in my closet.” She smirks and shakes her head, and I am happy to see her bewitching eyes that regularly change color from blue to green to hazel haven’t lost their spark. She doesn’t hate me, even as I hate myself plying her with my middle-aged clothes, with bags of chocolate, money, nearly everything she wants.

Here’s the insight that hit me, both as a giver and recipient of the guilty gift. People see through you. The guilty gift is weightier and full of emotion, it will haunt you as spending $300 on Easter baskets one year still haunts me.

I wanted to buy some moments of happiness in the confused life I had created for my kids, not once, but twice, and I had to be able to live with myself. I wanted to buy some normal minutes in childhood, purchase some memories so the things my kids repeated back to their therapists weren’t all bad.

When you are in the state of guilty giving, you are not secure, not okay, not convinced you have made the right decision for your children. The guilty gift, when they see through it, is a watershed moment with your children when you feel accepted for the money you have or don’t, the house you live in, the car you drive, and you realize how deep that love is.

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Not giving the guilty gift allows us an opportunity to address what is going on in our child’s mind, instead of buying some peace and reassurance for ourselves, neither of which will last. We can talk to our kids and begin the slow unveiling that we are just humans who make mistakes, but even when that happens, and even when we get hurt, a person who really loves you will come back again and again.

That is especially important when you are the parent. I try to appeal to my daughter on her level and let her know I realize her taking on extra chores and responsibilities is unfair, but she is coming to see, on her own, that you don’t desert family when the going gets rough, or sick, rather it’s a time to adhere even harder and faster, to really talk about fears and needs, and to grow closer. We are a special little club, this girl of mine, this family of mine.

The good news is, it is easy to stop the guilty giving. To fight the guilt with the simple insertion of the phrase in your mind that you are important to your child and your family, that your appearance in their lives, and cherished time will always mean more than anything store-bought. When you feel like falling back to what’s comfortable and unemotional, close your eyes and think of the best times you’ve ever experienced with your child, when you felt a million feet tall and immortal, when you held them close to your heart, their tender weight and life in your hands.

When I was broken, my own victim of poor choices and rash long-term decisions, my children taught me unconditional love, a forevermore connection I had yet to believe. When I absorbed their pure acceptance of my very faulty nature, I recognized the dirty secret for which I felt no pride; I took their thanks with me into my current relationship and used it to tentatively glue together a loose semblance of my new family’s infrastructure.

No, I wasn’t cured overnight, but halting guilty giving redirected me to select better and more honest options, opened doors, and reset the family dynamic, which was long overdue. If it’s hard to grasp the fact you are loveable, begin with having faith in your kid’s feelings. They are too young and naive to manipulate such an elemental emotion as love, so it must be true. Eat up that adoration, which so many in our circles don’t give easily. Believe you are a good guy, just the way you are.

Original article appeared at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.

Photo: Flickr/Matthew Hester

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