I came home with my own daughter to hear this statement in my living room, which had been converted for use from a mixed utility extra bedroom and den into a bible study area. I wish I could say I was shocked by this theological axiom. A bit flustered and a bit disgusted, sure, but it was not a new concept to me. I remember agreeing with the idea that children – as people – are fundamentally sinful creatures and even saying some variation of that adage myself well before I had my own. And it wasn’t just bachelor and bachelorette laity repeating this theological miscue, either. Pastors and parents in Christian America are so sure of children’s innate evil that they advocate various forms of violence in order to exorcise those demons out of the child’s ass. Presumably through coughing, I suppose.
Spare not the rod, they repeat. As if a rod is a metal pipe and not a shepherd’s gentle directing device to keep the sheep from going into the path of predators. What kind of twisted logic must we place onto the Good Shepherd poem to believe that brutalizing with a rod and a staff are supposed to be comforting? Who, ever, feels safe and secure when beaten? Someone who desperately needs counseling.
First, if you’re going to prove that humans are naturally sinful, you probably shouldn’t blame babies for being dependent and not fully cognizant of the world. Babies are selfish – but they’re supposed to be. Do you think they are able to care for you, or any of a million suffering people in the world? They can’t. They have physical, psychological, social, and biological needs. They are dependent mammals. That is how they are. That is how God created them to be.
Those moments when we think that infants don’t need anything but they're crying nonetheless? They need to be stimulated and played with and held and they need to know their boundaries and they need sleep. They may have gas. Or they may feel a little bit of discomfort and, being new to the world outside of a fluid sack and new to sights and sounds and touch – catch this – they just don’t know what to do with themselves just yet.
Is that evil? Is that sinful that they have yet to develop the cognitive capacity for sympathy or empathy when they don’t know how to feed themselves or lift their heads up? Is it evil that they wake parents up and put us through all sorts of insecurities and frights and worries and sleepless nights? Are we supposed to believe that they're merely being selfish? Is this why some Christians have an adversarial position with science? Because if they find out basic child development patterns their entire theology goes down the diaper?
As children grow, they still cry for various reasons. But not because they’re necessarily evil. They just don’t know any better. My daughter whines when she’s angry, sad, tired, hungry, hurt, or feeling neglected. Combine any two of those and she’s liable to cry for what – at first glance – I would deem to be selfish. Well, she’s four. Four whole years old. We’re still in process of training her. She’s still in the process of connecting neurons which will build up her empathy and sympathy connectors. She’s got smaller legs than I do and she can’t fit as much food (ergo, energy) down her tubes, so she needs to snack if she’s going to exert energy. Lord, she hasn’t learned a task as complex as tying her shoes yet.
Children aren’t naturally wicked. They’re just naturally natural. It’s okay that children are like that. On the other hand, it’s not okay when adults are selfish. It is not okay when grown-ups use our own temperaments as barometers for how children are expected to behave at any given moment. It’s not okay that parents are so selfish that we have to react to our children in ultimately harmful and destructive means.
But let’s get to the second point, shall we? My father, though he wasn’t a Calvinist*, learned from his father that children were supposed to be whooped in order to make them obedient. Obedience is kind of a funny concept in its own right, of course. It’s quite a different concept than discipline. Discipline means we have training that teaches us to do the right thing as necessary. So I teach my daughter to take her medicine every night, do her treatments when she wakes and before she goes to bed. We have nighttime routines and morning routines that we try to adhere to despite the fact that we’re tired or grumpy. And these disciplines get us through the days and are good for us in the short and long run. I wish that my father disciplined me into brushing my teeth regularly. They wouldn’t be so messed up now. Punishment is something different. Punishment is usually arbitrary and can come at any time and for nearly any infraction. It's goal may be to make us better people, but usually through the process of strict obedience** - so there is no true foundation. Only fear.
I didn’t lie or tell stories to my dad, or smart off to him, etc, not primarily because I loved him or respected him, but because I feared him. Fear was the name of the game. My dad would pull down my pants, lean me over his knee while he sat on the edge of the tub and strike down fiercely onto my naked butt-flesh with his bony hands until I screamed bloody murder. And then he’d strike a few more times. It was profoundly disturbing. And embarrassing – especially the time that my friends were at my house. But I hated him for it. I hated him for the inconsistency and for the violence and for the shame. It was and is still a process I’m going through to relieve myself of that pain. The bitterness is gone. I have forgiven him. I love my dad. I know he tried to do right. But I don’t want my daughter to go through those same emotions. She can hate me for different reasons (I’m sure there will be many more reasons to hate me when she becomes a teen), but I don’t want to shame or humiliate her or lose her trust. That would not be the basis of a healthy relationship. And since the relationship between family members is the primary one that a human being has, that sets the stage for all other relationships, why would I want to jeopardize her entire life?
Is that what Christian parenting should be? If so, I want no part of that.
Fortunately, it's not.
*Now, my father was raised Catholic, and Original Sin was an Augustinian concept before it was plundered and exaggerated by John Calvin and his acolytes.
** One thing I'm learning: We have more than enough obedience. That is how we justify doing horrible things. Nuremberg was fundamentally about obedience. War is fundamentally about blind obedience. Torture and slavery and suffering is fundamentally about blind obedience. Jesus questioned the authorities, as did Paul and Peter and even the Syro-Phoenician woman.