This is the last installment in my premature celebration of the Week of the Young Child. I didn’t finish up yesterday’s post in time because e.e. and I took advantage of the three hours of spring weather, so you only get 4 posts. Try not to be too upset. If you need more young child inspiration, check out the other posts in this series on infant play, listening to children, and not being a helicopter parent.
Christian views on discipline and child development are often based in the idea of original sin. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,” Proverbs tells us. “Beat it out with a stick.” (Rough paraphrase.)
According to this view, every undesirable behavior stems from some sort of conscious choice to do wrong — disobedience, disrespect, or just general naughtiness. Kids are inherently sinful, and their sinfulness affects everything they do.
I cannot disagree with this diagnosis strongly enough.
Yes, the fall affects every aspect of the human experience. We are indeed sinful. But “sin” is not, in my understanding, properly understood as merely disobedience to or rebellion against God’s law. Sin isn’t even primarily willful, conscious choices to do wrong for doing wrong’s sake. Sin is any disturbance of God’s shalom, any disorder of the good things still in this world. This includes disobedience and rebellion, of course, but it also covers the brokenness of the world and the harm we receive from it — whether it’s as “benign” as watching an animal die, suffering from the common cold, or getting yelled at for an accident; or as serious as enduring discrimination or abuse.
Living in a broken world messes us up.
I believe children are born in the image of God — that is, with an innate desire to love, to create, and to do good. Jesus praises little children as our examples of faith, because he recognizes their motivations to please, to do right, to wonder, and to believe against all odds.
But children are not little angels. They throw fits. They bite other kids. They yell “no” when you tell them it’s time to change their diaper.
How can I make the case that kids are inherently good when we’ve all seen plenty examples of children acting out?
Well, think back to the last time you lost it.
I’ll start. I came home from work and snapped at my husband for not doing the dishes like I’d asked. “You never do anything around the house!” I yelled, instantly remembering a half dozen things he’d done in the past week. Offended, he then pointed out those half dozen things. Instead of apologizing, I grumbled something about him being so sensitive. He gave me a look of hurt and annoyance and turned away. “You don’t care about me!” I yelled. “All you care about is your stupid computer games!” A long rant later, having failed at getting a rise out of him, I stormed into the bedroom and burst into tears.
I just wanted him to hug me. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted the dishes done. I just didn’t know what I wanted; I was too strung out to think straight.
Sure, you could argue that I’m acting out of my total depravity. Maybe you’re right. But I’d gotten no sleep last night while the baby wailed, I’d felt like I spent all my time cleaning our house, an awkward coworker disagreement went down at work, a kid got a bloody nose under my watch, and the unwashed dishes were the straw that broke this weary camel’s back.
I don’t normally snap at my husband, but when I do, I’m sleep-deprived and stressed.
Our adult bad behavior often stems from the hurt or frustration we experience in a broken world. It’s a rare person who chooses to exercise her will in a sinful way just for the sake of it. Physical and emotional ailments wear down the will, making it more prone to hurting others or ourselves, like a wounded animal snarling at its kind owner in self-preservation.
Even with abuse or crime, hurt people hurt people. Hurt begets hurt. Violence begets violence. Abuse begets abuse. We give what we experience.
None of that excuses sin, but it explains the complications of human nature — how pain and ignorance disorder our otherwise good motives, causing harm to ourselves and others.
With children, it’s even less complicated than that. Developmentally immature, children don’t know how to handle the brokenness of the world, not even small things like hunger or minor disappointment. They don’t have the self-control to quell their emotions when they’re stressed; they don’t have the empathy required to see how their actions affect others; they don’t have the knowledge of how to solves problems with words instead of teeth and hands.
Bad behavior, from tantrums to biting to disobedience, is often communication under duress: “I’m tired!” “I want that toy back!” “I feel like that rule is unfair!”
Children don’t explicitly do things to harm or bother others for the sake of harming or bothering. They feel things deeply, and they need to express those feelings. They just don’t know how to do so in appropriate ways.
Neither do many adults, it turns out. Have you ever seen a kid throwing a tantrum in the noodle aisle, only to walk past them again in the cereal aisle and see the mom screaming at the kid for throwing a tantrum in public? Both felt strongly about something, and both expressed their feelings in an inappropriate, immature way.
The thing is, many adults give their own tantrums a pass because their own feelings appear legitimate to them, while they hold kids to a higher standard of behavior simply because their kids’ reasons for throwing a tantrum don’t seem legitimate.
We need to give our children the same respect, grace, and understanding we want when the world wears us down with its many inconveniences, injustices, and hurts. And if you’re not giving or receiving this grace for yourself, you’re not going to be able to give it, either. Just as there aren’t many “bad” kids, there aren’t many “bad” parents, either. Just harried, stressed, tired, overwhelmed, and outnumbered parents who are still learning how to survive in a broken, sinful world.