Vol 10, Num 8 :: 2011.04.22 — 2011.05.05
While lecturing on the concept of the inherited sin nature, my professor criticized the notion of childhood innocence: “People talk about how innocent babies are. It’s not true! When I held my newborn granddaughter for the first time, I looked at her little face and told her frankly: ’you’re a sinner just like me.’” Now, he wasn’t an unkind man — I happened to do a little babysitting for his son’s family, and knew him to be a very loving grandfather indeed — but his words in the classroom surprised me.
Maybe they shouldn’t have. The idea that we’re “sinful from birth” comes straight out of Psalm 51, and the notion is echoed elsewhere in Scripture — in Job, for example, and in Genesis 8. And Augustine certainly seems to confirm it, saying that children’s innocence is “in the weakness of their limbs,” rather than in their wills — presumably, babies are simply not strong enough to carry out the sinful acts that their natures incline them toward. Following in this line of thinking, many parents (and teachers, writers, and speakers) come to regard children as potentially evil beings who must quickly be brought under control. As Ted Tripp, author of the popular book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, writes:
From birth to age 4, the most important lesson for the child to learn in this period is that he is an individual under authority…. Acquaint your children with authority and submission when they are infants. This training starts the day you bring them home from the hospital.
Logically following from this foundation, Tripp and others — including James Dobson, Gary Ezzo, Michael and Debi Pearl, and Douglas and Nancy Wilson — have frequently (and, often, controversially) advocated what they understand to be truly Biblical discipline — that is, spanking — beginning with very young babies. While Ezzo, the Pearls and the Wilsons are especially controversial, their advocacy of corporal punishment seems pretty much mainstream for Christian publishing; as noted in Christian Retailing magazine, the 2004 book Grace-Based Parenting was the first book opposed to spanking to be released from a major Christian publishing house.
I’m also opposed to spanking. I think there are plenty of good reasons not to do it. But as objectionable as I find it, I’m more troubled by the underlying view of children so frequently touted as Biblical — the one that sees them as terrible sinners from birth. Let me be clear: I’m a Christian. I don’t dispute the orthodox doctrine of sin expressed in, for example, the Thirty-Nine Articles, which assert that we are, in our very nature, “inclined to evil.” Further, I’m a mama to two bright, beautiful, and mischievous boys — and I know I never needed to teach them to taunt each other, or to be scheming and greedy. They’ve done all that and more on their own. But, still, I’m not so sure how we get from poetic references to being “sinful from birth” to the idea that we need to spank eight-month-olds who squirm during diaper changes, require babies to have “blanket time” or “high chair time” simply to assert our parental authority and “right” to demand that they sit still, or establish and strictly enforce rules that must be obeyed unquestioningly and immediately no matter what, under pain of physical retribution.
I’m uncomfortable with this hard-line approach for several reasons. For one thing, as Alfie Kohn suggests in Unconditional Parenting, it’s important to consider what attitudes and habits we value for our children over the long term. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I feel like I’d love nothing better than to have my kids comply without questions and negotiations. But is unquestioning obedience and rigid adherence to someone else’s rules something that we really want for our kids as they enter adolescence and adulthood? It’s definitely not something I want for my kids. I’d rather they have a moral compass that’s calibrated to something much more fixed than the rules and preferences of those around them, even those in positions of authority; if obeying rules is the highest value, their courses will only be as true as the people and the laws that they follow. Of course laws and rules help life in community to go smoothly — of course. But absolute compliance with laws leads to things like the perpetuation of Jim Crow, to take just one example.
Besides this reservation, it’s not my job to rid my children of sin — as if that were even possible through adherence to rules and laws. Parenting that operates on a model of sin and punishment may indeed partly reflect a Biblical understanding of God’s ways with humans. But surely that’s only a (very) small part of the picture. God’s glory and righteousness may well be at work in his wrathful destruction of sinners — say, when he opens the ground to consume the folks at Korah’s rebellion — but such events are not the center of Christian faith. How much more is God’s beauty and glory displayed at the cross and in the resurrection, where God, having taken the form of a lowly servant, submits to a painful and humiliating death for the sake of love and righteousness, and, rising again, speaks words of peace, inviting his followers to a life ruled by love for God and neighbor (which is what all the laws were supposed to be about, anyway)? Do I follow my risen Lord best by emphasizing my God-given authority over the children in my care and strictly enforcing rules and punishing them, or by serving them with love, teaching them with patience and bearing with their weaknesses? (They certainly do have to bear with mine.)
Yes, I’m a sinner, and my kids are too. Having kids has helped show me just how much of a sinner I am — a person inclined to selfishness, impatience and short temper. For that reason, I hold hands with my kids before bed, and, before thanking God for sending Jesus and asking God to help us love one another better, I sing with them the Taizé chant:
Jesus, remember me
When you come into your Kingdom.
We’re sinners. But by that grace that goes beyond all the rules of human law — indeed, beyond our capacity for full understanding — we’re also saints.