Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).

Nebby

 

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