Sunday, October 14, 2012

What are We Good For?

The Veggietales situation as well as an interesting discussion on the homeschool forum that I seldom wish to be snarky on reminds me of one of my ongoing issues as a parent: What is the point of teaching children to behave?

Yes, I have to think through things like this. I cannot do something consistently if I don't have a good reason for doing it. When the children were very small, this lead to conversations with Wondergirl like this:

Wondergirl: Are your children allowed to climb on the coffee table?
Me: I don't know, none of them have gotten up there before. Let me think about it.
Child, falling off the table: WAAAAHHH!!
Me: OK, that's a reason. I guess not.

When it comes to moral behavior, though, I think it's an especially important question. Not only is it important for me to be clear in my mind why I am requiring good behavior of them, it's important for me to communicate it clearly to them.

Most of the books about how to be a Good Christian Parent take the duty of inculcating moral behavior very, very seriously, but I'm not usually very comfortable with the idea of why. Are we hoping to make our children better Christians by teaching them to behave? Well, that's patently wrong. Anything that gives them the impression they are more acceptable in God's sight because they behave themselves is just raising a little Pharisee who won't even think they need a savior. (And, as icky as I find it to imagine saying, "You make Mommy very sad when you do that," I find it ten times ickier to say, "You make Jesus very sad when you do that," as if Jesus gets his feelings hurt and is going to sulk until we apologize nicely.)

Then there are the people who come in opposition to that to say that the point of our parenting should be to reveal to our children just how evil their little hearts are. If we come down off Mount Sinai with smashing tablets, or just preach a come-to-Jesus sermon every time they slug their little brother, we may, someday, lead them to cry 'mercy' and find Jesus. While this has some internal logic, I have yet to see it be effective in practice, leading usually to children who simply give up before they get to the grace part.

I am not the Holy Spirit. I cannot convict of sin. I cannot bring repentance. I cannot bring forgiveness. I cannot bring sanctification. I am just a fellow sinner and recipient of grace, sharing what I know.

So what's the point of teaching them to behave? It's kind of like the exchange between George Bailey and Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life:
George: You don't happen to have 8,000 bucks on you?
Clarence (chuckling): No, we don't use money in Heaven.
George: Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud!

Good behavior isn't needed for Heaven. But it comes in handy down here. It's not always the easiest or most pleasant thing to do, but overall, it was given to us for our good. And knowing about what is right helps us understand more about who God is--about the beauty and order and relationships he made us to have.

Ultimately, we learn to behave simply because it's right. You don't hit your little brother, not because of how it makes Jesus or Mommy feel, but because it's wrong to treat other people that way. Jesus can take our badness (in fact, he already has), but little brother is smooshable and needs to be treated rightly.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Thank you.

Carrie said...

I see your logic but then when it boils down to deciding that it is not right to hit your brother, how are you escaping teaching them what *makes* something right or wrong? And how are you managing to leave out that God does care about how we behave or else He wouldn't have offered a.) rules or b.) teachings to show us that certain things are right or wrong?

No, I don't believe that you should do or not do something because it makes mommy sad or otherwise. But I find it inescapable to say, "We do this because it is what God has told us in scriptures to do/not do." And if He took the time to tell us how we ought to behave, then I'm left to assume He cares about it. And so there is a reason to teach about apologies and the extension of forgiveness, which also teaches grace.

I'm just not quite sure how you are getting around this when you are talking about a standard of right or wrong.

Queen of Carrots said...

I don't have a problem with teaching that God tells us that things are wrong. However, I don't believe that this is because God makes up what is right and wrong, but rather rightness and wrongness are in the nature of who God is and how he made us. It's not arbitrary. It's not "just because."

I also seldom find it necessary to explain "why." Children have consciences too, and they instinctively recognize that cruelty and falsehood are wrong when they see them. (They want an explanation for why they need to go to bed at 8:30, but moral wrongs not so much.) We recognize the truth of God's law because we see in it, written large and clear, the law we already have written in our hearts. We certainly do talk about God's law, but not usually in the context of discipline; they *know* what wrong is and just need a quick reminder.

Our behavior also does not grant us favor with God: our righteousness is like filthy rags. Yes, God desires all things to be in harmony with Himself, but we cannot get there by our efforts--it is being accomplished through Christ. We can rest in His work. The Law brings knowledge of sin, but it cannot bring righteousness; only Jesus can do that, and it is through knowing him, not trying to behave better.

Duke of Burgundy said...

On the rare occasions that one of the kids asks me why something is wrong, I just turn the question back: why would they think it is right? "Well I think I ought to be able to hit my brother in that situation." Fine. Do you think your brother should be able to hit you if the tables were turned? The answer is inevitably "no."

Sure, a deeper discussion of theological import is good. But not when they're in first grade. And I really REALLY don't want to train them to accept what someone else believes God is telling them to do. That's between them and God.

Wendy said...

I would say that the point of good behavior is that it is an act of love to others. (This applies to even little kids: think of chewing with your mouth open, grossing people out is not loving)

Loving others is an essential part of loving God, which is the ultimate goal.

Doing the right thing to please God (because you love Him) is good, doing it to get more out of Him (heaven) is not (and it doesn't work, as you pointed out!).

The other major reason (to me) to be good is that it is what we were created to do, it's part of our nature (even though that nature has been damaged by sin).

It's not hard for kids to see that the world is messed up, and mostly messed up by people choosing not to do good. Our lives work better when we do good.

I'm not saying that everyone's life is outwardly easier when they do the right thing, just that their lives are better!

I love the Duke's comment about asking "Is it OK if they do this to you?" LOL!

What a great post!