Many parents live in fear that any parental misstep might mar their child’s character in some irreparable way. They think if something goes wrong in childhood, the child might begin to drift spiritually or wander morally. But the truth is that our children are already marred by sin from the moment they are conceived. The drive to sin is embedded in their very natures. All that is required for the tragic harvest is that children be allowed to give unrestrained expression to those evil desires.
In hopes of fencing in their children’s depraved natures, many Christian parents have taken various philosophical approaches to parenting. But do these parenting philosophies truly protect children from exploring the full extent of their sinfulness? And more importantly, do they point sinners to the Savior?
Behaviorism Is Not the Answer
Certainly both manners and discipline are necessary aspects of proper parenting. But teaching our kids manners is no solution to the problem of human depravity. Tacking on punishment for wrongdoing won’t solve the problem, either. In fact, parents who concentrate all their energies on correcting external behavior, or staving off misbehavior with threats of discipline, may be doing little more than training hypocrites.
I’ve seen this occur repeatedly. I know Christian parents who think their parenting is successful because they have taught their children to act politely on cue, answer with “Yes, Sir” and “No, Ma’am,” and speak to adults when spoken to. But behind the parents’ backs, those same kids can be the most ill-behaved, unruly kids in the church—especially when unsupervised among peers. And the parents seem blissfully unaware of the children’s true character. Almost every teacher and youth leader knows the frustration of trying to deal with a problem child whose parents simply refuse to believe their child is capable of serious wrongdoing. This is often because the parents have focused exclusively on issues like public behavior, external decorum, and courtesy to other adults, but they have no understanding of the real state of their own child’s heart. Often the child is merely conforming to avoid punishment.
Merely enforcing external behavior with the threat of discipline is sheer behaviorism. The good manners produced by such an approach are nothing more than a conditioned response. While that kind of behavior control may appear to work wonders for a time (especially when the parents are nearby), it does not address the problem of depravity, which is a heart problem.
Isolationism Is Not the Answer
Many Christian parents think they have fulfilled the parenting task if they build a cocoon around their kids to isolate them from bad influences. They restrict their children’s exposure to television, ban popular music from the home, and sometimes even forbid any fraternization with children whose parents may not share their commitment to this kind of isolation.
There is certainly much on television and in other entertainment media from which our kids should be shielded. And since the standards are deteriorating so rapidly, it is essential for Christian parents to provide some kind of insulation for their kids. It is simply reckless parenting to permit your kids to surf the Web unsupervised, listen to whatever popular music they choose, or watch television and see movies without any parental oversight. Parents who blithely forfeit control over what their kids see and hear in a culture like this are guilty of appalling malfeasance.
But total isolation is not the answer, either. Naiveté is not a trait to be cultivated in our children. Prudishness is foolish immaturity. It leaves our children gullible and vulnerable. The naïve are the easiest targets for the seductive wiles of temptation. Throughout the book of Proverbs, the naïve (“simple” in many translations) are held up as negative examples:
• “How long, O naive ones, will you love being simple-minded?” (Proverbs 1:22) • “The waywardness of the naive will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them.” (Proverbs 1:32) • “The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps. . . . The naive inherit foolishness, but the sensible are crowned with knowledge.” (Proverbs 14:15, 18) • “The prudent sees the evil and hides himself, but the naive go on, and are punished for it.” (Proverbs 22:3; cf. 27:12)
Please do not misunderstand; there is a kind of holy innocence that we must cultivate not only in our children but also in ourselves. The apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil” (Romans 16:19). But in that context he was speaking of knowledge that comes from personal experience. This verse came at the end of several chapters of practical instruction from the apostle. He was saying he wanted the Romans to be well-practiced in good behavior, but inexperienced when it came to evil.
Inexperience and naiveté are not the same thing. Paul did not mean he wanted them oblivious to the existence of evil. He was certainly not advocating deliberate ignorance or a willful blindness to the reality of evil. He wanted them to be prudent, not prudish. The difference is significant.
Parents cannot—and should not—try to isolate their children totally from the truth about sin and the subtleties of temptation. We should not cultivate the kind of “innocence” in our children that leaves them exposed and vulnerable to temptations they never even imagined existed. Our task is to teach them discernment, not raise them to be prudes.
I know of one Christian parenting course that encourages moms and dads to avoid giving their children any kind of detailed instruction whatsoever about sexual matters, not only during childhood and adolescence, but up to and including the son or daughter’s wedding night. The child’s inevitable questions about anatomy and bodily development during puberty are supposed to be deflected with vague answers, making it clear that the very topic of sex is taboo. If questions about reproduction need to be addressed, they should be dealt with using the parts of a flower, for fear that anything more explicit will take away the child’s innocence. According to this program, mere exposure to the facts about human reproduction jeopardizes your child’s moral innocence. This particular course goes as far as cautioning parents not to expose their kids to classical art exhibits because they include statues and paintings that portray nude figures.
That sort of isolationism is a recipe for disaster. It is a wholly unbiblical perspective. Sex is not portrayed in Scripture as inherently evil, nor is it treated as taboo. Sex outside of marriage is certainly sinful, but within marriage, the union of husband and wife is holy and honorable (Hebrews 13:4). The subject per se poses no threat to a proper, godly, moral innocence. How can our children hope to have a proper and biblical understanding of these things if we treat the subject itself as a threat to their innocence? Scripture certainly does not do that. An entire book of the Old Testament—the Song of Solomon—was written to celebrate the joy and the purity of marital intimacy. There is certainly no command or principle in Scripture that would make such matters off limits for parental instruction.
On the contrary, instructing children properly in such matters lies at the heart of the parents’ responsibility. Abdicate this responsibility and you practically ensure that your children will be more influenced by the values they learn from schoolteachers and peers. It is nearly impossible, and certainly a wrong-headed approach to parenting, to keep children totally isolated from all influences outside the family. So in all likelihood they will learn about these things from other sources, no matter how they have been sheltered. If the parents have declined to foster a godly knowledge of sex and human reproduction, the likelihood that the child will develop ungodly attitudes toward the subject are multiplied.
Besides, the notion that parents are preserving a child’s innocence by isolating them ignores the reality that many of our sinful desires are inborn. Sinful appetites are inherent in our fallen nature. They are not merely learned behaviors. Refuse to teach your children anything about sex and you may set loose the child’s own evil imagination to work overtime.
A similar principle holds true for those who attempt to isolate their children from awareness of secular culture. Extreme isolationism costs parents valuable opportunities to teach their kids discernment. For example, it may well be more profitable to watch Star Warswith your kids and teach them how to identify and refute its erroneous New Age philosophies, rather than trying to keep your children spiritually quarantined, completely unaware of what they will face in the future.
In the first place, parents will not be able to isolate their children forever. The day will come when they are exposed to the real world, and they had better be prepared with discernment skills and wisdom to perceive and resist the wiles of the devil and the enticements of the world.
But in the second place, it is simply a mistake to think that shutting our kids off from outside influences will somehow keep them from any temptation to evil. The most persistent source of temptation is not the world or the devil, but the flesh. You can often elude the influence of the world and the devil, but you cannot escape the influence of your own flesh. The flesh is a constant source of temptation from which you cannot sequester your children.
It is a grave mistake to think of our children as little angels who need to be handled delicately so they don’t get corrupted. Rather, they are corrupt little sinners who need to be led to righteousness.
There is only one biblical answer to the problem of depravity: regeneration. Next time we’ll look at how to lead your child to Christ.