On Seeing Children as Sinners

I know this post is exceedingly long. But it feels like one of the most important things I've ever written as I've worked through my own understanding of God and parenting. That's why I share it here.

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I heard it from a young age, probably with each infant that was baptized: children, even from birth, need God’s grace because they are sinners.

I can’t tell you how many times since then I’ve heard some version of this:

“We don’t have to wonder if our children are sinners. From the very beginning they crawl towards things even when we say “no.” They often have a look of deliberate disobedience when you tell them not to do something. And if you watch them in the nursery, you will see that they don’t even want to share!”

I’m tired of it.

I’m not sure why we focus so much on seeing children as sinners. I think the goal is to illustrate the concept of original sin–that in Adam’s fall, we sinned all. None are born in a state of perfection; all are sinners because Adam sinned. We deserve the curse of disobedience even before we disobey because we are part of the human race. But I don’t think this means we need to discipline from a standpoint of children as sinners.

To push it further, I’m not sure that everything we see in our children is even sin. That desire to crawl toward something even when the parent says “no” may not be rebellion so much as curiosity–even a healthy testing of the limits. Children don’t always understand our commands like we think they do, nor are we always as consistent as we think.

The parents who parent the child as first and foremost a sinner are not only possibly missing a good relationship with their child; they are missing the Gospel for themselves too.

Cheerful, Immediate Obedience

Christian parenting advice often puts the parent in the place of God and the child in the place of us. These books imply that we are supposed to teach our children to obey us cheerfully, and that will teach them to obey God cheerfully. But harsh discipline and strict rules cannot, alone, produce willing obedience. Our commands are never perfect as God’s are; even our commands can be tainted with sin and selfishness. Sometimes I’ve found that we want our children to obey more for our convenience and self-image than for their good.

In Deuteronomy 1:39, God is telling Moses that the faithless adults will not see the promised land; He will instead give it to their children (a marvelous act of grace!). But what he says fascinates me:

“And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it” (Deut 1:39, emphasis mine).

What age, I wonder, were these children that the Lord said had “no knowledge of good and evil”–the same phrase used for the Tree in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps until a certain age, there is no true knowledge of good and evil, necessary to call something “sin.”

Even the “rod” in the spanking verses is not as clearcut as some parenting experts imply. Certainly the word rod–shebet– can mean a literal rod of punishment, but it can also be a rod used for writing, ruling, walking, or fighting. It can even be a shepherd’s staff. After all, it is the same word used in Psalm 23–“his rod and his staff they comfort me.”

Another Parenting Metaphor

That’s the image I cling to–a parent as a shepherd. So perhaps our primary inspiration should come from the verses about Christ as the Good Shepherd in John 10. He lays down his life for his sheep; they hear his voice; none harm them. And ultimately, I think shepherding reflects how so many of us want to parent. We want to be free to cuddle our kids and delight in them fully and not worry about them being spoiled. We want to be free to sacrifice for them without people telling us we are spoiling them or becoming martyrs. We don’t want to see every misstep as sin.

Instead of parenting from a standpoint of God (us) and Israel (our children), we need to parent incarnationally, embodying Christ who makes himself nothing and comes down to us in all of our mess and tantrums and frustration. I think this would look like getting down on our children’s levels more and trying to see things from their viewpoint. It would mean parenting from their context and not just our own, using our power to make them more the people God intended them to be. It would mean seeing their God-given image-bearing characteristics first–their innate creativity and desire to be productive and beauty and relational skills–before we look at their sin. (Sidenote: This is one reason I love the Montessori philosophy so much!)

We talk about the metaphoric washing of our spouse’s feet, but what about washing our children’s feet? It’s not just the daily serving–the resources we are obligated to provide like shelter and food. It’s about voluntarily serving them and submitting our own desires–when appropriate–to theirs. It’s not a parenting of martyrdom but of self-giving love. And while most parents do love sacrificially day in and day out to keep their children healthy, I think we need to see the delight in the sacrifice–the delight in making ourselves nothing in order to live out the Gospel for our kids (note: this is not about burnt-out sacrifice).

Jesus and Parenting Advice

Interestingly Jesus never once tells parents to discipline their children (though teaching our children right and wrong and the commands of God is certainly in the Bible!). When he does talk about children, it’s inviting them to come to him and encouraging faith like theirs. I think about this when children–my own child or those of others–seem to get in the way of my plans. My heart is far too often that of the disciples’–“Get them out of the way! The adults are talking now.” But Jesus says,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14b).

In Mark 10, he adds,

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (vs. 15).

This story is told in all the Gospels except for John. Perhaps we come closest to the kingdom when we are closest to children. If my job is about conforming a stubborn child’s will to God’s commands as so many Christian parenting experts imply, I am missing the clear words of Christ in Mark 10:15. I am missing an opportunity to learn from children.

How we parent reflects how we see the Gospel. If I see myself–standing in the place of God–as a strict disciplinarian and my child as a stubborn sinner, then I am missing the Gospel. God does not look at us and see sinners; he looks at us and sees children because of Christ. This means that I can embody the Gospel in my parenting, preaching it not just to my child but to my own heart.

It’s clear that just as in God’s relationship with us, parenting is first about the relationship and second about the commands. The sheep must know the shepherd in order to hear and trust his voice. This is what we see in God’s commands to Israel. Rather than a command to discipline the children, the Israelites are commanded to talk about God’s law in all the ordinary aspects of their lives:

“You shall teach [these commands] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…” (Deut. 11:19)

In this past year and a half of motherhood, I’ve come to understand God’s love better not through discipline or calling my son a sinner but through the sheer delight I take in him and his simple trust in us. He looks to us to give him good food and the right word and sleep. We want to give him good things–sometimes I wish I could buy the whole toy store for him! We’re not sitting there trying to test his obedience, waiting for him to mess up, expecting that our own rules are perfect models of God’s own.

We try to understand him while simultaneously trying to raise him to love what is good and true and holy and beautiful. We’re aware of our own failures and don’t think of our rules as perfect like God’s.

I know I’m just a mom of a one-year-old. I hardly qualify as a parenting expert. But I do wonder what would happen to our own understanding of God if we stopped viewing children as little sinners and tiny despots and instead tried to see the world from their eyes. What if we washed their feet–voluntarily rather than just meeting obligations? What if talk about God was a consistent part of daily lives, not just during devotional time or discipline situations? What if we tried to receive the kingdom of God as they do? Would we find freedom–and renewed spiritual insight–in parenting like that?

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