Christian parenting advice seems to really like discipline and obedience.
Rebecca here on the blog today. As I was researching other parenting books and various Christian parenting blogs as I wrote my book, Why I Didn’t Rebel, this focus on repentance and obedience was everywhere–how to teach your kids to obey, how to discipline your kids, what to do with an unruly toddler, how to help your kid turn away from sin.
And although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it always rubbed me the wrong way. Is kids’ primary moral need to be taught that they are sinners? When kids do something parents don’t like, is it usually because children are disobedient?
Thinking more on it, talking to a few people about it, and reviewing the interviews I did for Why I Didn’t Rebel for the millionth time, here’s what I’ve concluded: we talk about misbehavior as a sin issue, when in reality, a lot of the time it’s an impulse control or naivete issue.
Sheila just chiming in for a moment!
Rebecca originally wrote this post four years ago, but I wanted to re-run it today for two reasons.
First, it fits in perfectly with our series on attachment styles that we launched last week in our podcast! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at different attachment styles, and I thought this set the stage well.
Second, we’re in the process of moving the entire blog to a new domain–baremarriage.com. Well, it’s not the entire blog. We’re only taking with us the last few years’ worth of posts. So I wanted to update this one and make sure it made the move!
So here’s Rebecca:
But before I go any further, let’s get some theology straight.
We all do have need for a savior, and we definitely need to teach kids right from wrong–no arguments there! So here’s what the Bible says about the sinful nature:
What does the Bible say about our nature?
- All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God (Rom 3:23). Everyone sins, and we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.
- We are at war with two natures: the sinful nature, and God’s nature. We all have a sinful nature, but we are also created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
- When we know God, we have His Spirit within us, and we adopt Christ’s nature and reject the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16-25).
Most parenting focuses on turning away from the sinful nature and squashing sinful tendencies in children by teaching them to repent. But what if this isn’t the best way to teach kids right from wrong? What if kids don’t need that same focus on repentance that we do as adults?
Let me give you a bit of my story growing up.
I grew up in an amazing Christian family. I have known God (not just known about God, I have truly known God) for as long as I can remember. When I was 3 years old, I used to make up songs about Jesus dying on the cross so we could go to heaven while riding the subway in downtown Toronto. And in Kindergarten when I lost my favorite toy on the playground, my response when my friend found it for me was, “Well, I wasn’t worried. I knew I would find my toy because I prayed to Jesus about it.”
When I was a kid, my relationship with God wasn’t rooted in my understanding of my natural inclination towards sin. Instead, I just thought Jesus was wonderful and was so happy that he wanted to be my friend, too! I liked talking to Jesus, and singing to Jesus, and hearing stories about Jesus, and I knew that Jesus was always there and that he loved me more than anything.
It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I had my first true moment of understanding my need for a savior. I was sitting in my room and it suddenly hit me and I just started bawling–I got down on my knees, confessed, cried, and my dad actually came in and found me there and I just said, “Daddy, I really need Jesus, don’t I?”
But it wasn’t as though I didn’t know and love Jesus before I understood how much I needed him–I still had a real relationship with Him. I just wasn’t psychologically developed enough to grasp that deeper level yet.
When I look at how adults versus children are seen in the Bible, adults are told, “Be more like these kids!” But much of parenting advice seems to revolve around training kids to be little adults.
Jesus loved kids. He gathered them up and as the disciples tried to usher them away, Jesus threw away all the “proper” ideas of how children were to be around respected religious leaders like rabbis and instead said, “let the little children come to me!”
My concern is that somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten the wonder of childhood.
When Jesus talks about us as his children, he compares us to sheep, not wolves. What’s the difference? Sheep are simply stupid. Wolves, on the other hand, are deliberately malicious. Jesus calls us dumb, stubborn sheep. But when it comes to the typical parenting advice out there, it’s like we’re treating kids like wolves, not sheep!
Yes, we all have a sinful nature. But we’re also created in the image of God, and have His Spirit in us, too! And for those of us born into great Christian families, the Spirit side is our norm. And I think we need to understand the difference between misbehavior and maliciousness. A 5-year-old coloring on the walls isn’t malicious as much as it is just dumb.
My little sister, Katie, used to write on everything. And I mean everything. But for her, it wasn’t a chosen sin the way it would be if I were to color on the walls now, as a 23-year-old. For her, it was just the impulse control issues that 5-year-olds have! Telling her she was a disobedient little girl who needed to confess to Jesus would have been entirely inappropriate–and my concern is that it may cause a lot of shame and a feeling of never being good enough.
As a general rule, kids develop in stages–even with our moral understanding.
According to Kohlberg, morality develops in three stages.
Stage one is called the pre-conventional level, where morality is all about what it gets you.
You don’t lie, because if you lie you get a time out. You clean your room, because if you keep your room clean you can go for ice cream on Fridays.
Stage two is called the conventional level, and it’s all about social norms and becoming a “good girl” or “good boy.”
Morality is about what authority says is right (parents, government, teachers, pastors). At this stage, children believe that you should follow the rules even if there aren’t rewards or punishments because rules are what dictate morality. (That’s why children get upset when you change the rules to a board game. That’s just not done!)
That desire to be moral is lived out by following rules. Billy doesn’t run in the house because Mommy says you can’t run in the house and he wants to be a good boy. And he knows he’s a better boy than his brother Tommy, because Tommy runs in the house when he knows that mom can’t see him, but Billy doesn’t run no matter what.
Stage three is the post-conventional level, and it’s a more philosophical understanding of morality.
This is when you get into moral questions like, “if lying was wrong, was it a sin for Rahab to lie about the spies in her house?” Rules and laws can be broken if need be without it necessarily being immoral, and there is understanding that people can come to different conclusions about morality based on past experience and present situation (e.g., one person can decide to become a soldier and fight in a war for their country and another can see all forms of war as innately evil and choose not to fight, and you can see the validity of both positions).
Understanding Christianity’s moral laws really falls under the post-conventional level. We’re not supposed to follow God just because of what it gets us (stage one), or to be governed by rules or earth authority anymore (stage two), but instead to follow the Spirit God has given us and make decisions based on our individual callings under the greater umbrella of God’s morality (stage three).
Here’s the kicker, though: most kids don’t enter even stage two until late adolescence. So much of Christian parenting advice, though, is about teaching kids that they are fundamentally a sinful being who needs to repent! That’s a stage 3 type mentality!
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
I’m not saying we don’t teach kids how to behave–I’m saying we change our thinking around misbehavior.
It’s not evil for a 2-year-old to play with her potatoes. It’s just her learning what mashed potatoes feel like, and enjoying the smushiness! It doesn’t mean she’s following her sinful nature as much as just being a 2-year-old.
My parents definitely taught us to behave well–they didn’t tolerate my sister scribbling on everything! But the emphasis needs to be on helping kids make the right decisions instead of shaming them for doing something wrong.
Take colouring on the walls, for instance. There’s a big difference between teaching a 3-year-old to ask Jesus to help her stop coloring on the walls and forcing a 3-year-old to confess her sin of coloring on the walls to Jesus so she can be forgiven.
Let me give you a scenario following the typical Christian parenting advice I often find in books or on blogs:
- Have the child answer the question: are you being obedient or disobedient?
- Make them apologize for disobeying.
- Confess his/her sin to Jesus
- Decide on a punishment
When we’re talking about really young kids, this can become a very shaming message.
Here’s what my parents did instead when Katie doodled:
- Explain that the act was wrong and why (If you color on the walls, you are damaging mommy and daddy’s things.)
- If they are sorry, show them how to apologize to the injured party for the specific act (I’m sorry I colored on the walls, not I’m sorry I disobeyed you)
- Talk about how you can not do it next time (Let’s have an easel set up so you have a better place to color)
- Find a way for the child to fix the problem they caused (The child scrubs the crayon off the wall)
Instead of focusing on what we did wrong, it was about making things right. How can we avoid this in the future? How can you fix it now?
That’s a much more empowering message for kids, and much less dehumanizing than making them debase themselves for simply not having proper impulse control.
Jesus celebrates children’s innocence, their kindness, and their unwavering trust and faith in God.
But a lot of Christian parenting advice seems to forget that kids generally want to do the right thing–they just don’t know how yet. Let’s teach them how, rather than telling them that they are dirty rotten sinners.
What do you think? How can we incorporate more child development in our discipline? What’s gone wrong? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Blog Contributor, Author, and Podcaster
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