The other day my wife asked our almost 18-month-old daughter to do something (I think it had to do with putting clothes away), and it was fascinating to watch the wheels turn in our little girl’s head.
She started to move towards obedience, then said “no,” then leaned back towards obeying, said “no” again almost put the thing away, and then finally ran in the other direction.
My immediate thought: “you little sinner.”
My second thought: “That was harsh.”
Which pretty much summarizes two prominent schools of thought on child raising out there in the world (and even within the church).
If you go with my gut reaction you are either “biblical” or a “cruel/shame-based” parent”.
If you go with my second thought you are either a “soft/hippy” or an “organic/love-based” parent.
Having reflected on that moment, and my reaction to it, over the past couple of days, I think it all misses the point.
I absolutely believe in original sin. It’s one of the easiest biblical truths for me to believe. But, I think far too often this gets applied in unhelpful ways.
Original sin (and the subsequent “total depravity” doctrine) are misunderstood to mean that given the choice between “right” and “wrong” we will always choose wrong.
No. We can, and do at times, choose right,
choose right relationship.
But we also choose the opposite. And, back to the scene with my daughter, we struggle and agonize over the choice.
Choosing good, choosing to submit, choosing others-over-self does not come naturally. That is what I mean when I talk about original sin, or total depravity, or whatever you want to call it.
I watched my daughter listen to my wife’s request, process it, and then wrestle (in a very visible way) with what to do with that request. And that struggle, that wrestling, is the issue to me. Most people focus on the outcome: did she obey or not. Or they debate the ethics and morality of obedience or imposing rules on a young child.
Which all misses the point: we are hardwired to choose ourselves over others. And that is the problem of original sin.
This is why Jesus’ invitation to follow him involves picking up a cross, denying ourselves, and becoming great (read, good) by serving others instead of ourselves.
I don’t want to downplay morality, but I think the parenting conversation gets lost there and then lives in denial about the real issue (self-centeredness).
The goal is not to raise rule-followers or narcissists, but wise, whole, self-giving human beings.
That’s what we are shooting for.