Sometimes I’m quite shocked to find out what people in other parts of the world consider to be normal Christian ideas. And at that moment I’m glad that I’ve grown up with not much influence of certain quite weird ideas that are endemic in for example certain strains of American fundamentalism. Sometimes ignorance is a bliss, and sometimes it’s better to learn about certain things when you’re old enough to look at them with discernment. (And I’m not talking about these things now) Yes, I am happy to bluntly restate that sometimes I’m really glad that I’m quite oblivious towards things certain things, that some have to battle with and unlearn all of their lives to retain what’s left of their sanity, and it’s actually a luxury that I don’t even understand some things I guess. (See also my post about not understanding complementarianism here)
So one of the things that is quite new and shocking to me, every time I encounter it, is fundamentalist ideas about parenting that are based on total depravity of babies and small children. When people insinuate that babies are evil creatures, the only reaction I feel is ‘what the bleeping hell?’. I try to understand, but as the father of a 20 months old toddler myself, I just don’t get it. And I don’t believe it would be healthy, neither for her nor for me, to try to get inside that way of thinking…
I had been taught to see parenting as a contest, a contest in which I must defeat my child’s will. I was taught that my daughter when she was a babe in arms was “a little bundle of sin.”
I find this idea of a baby as a ‘little bundle of sin’ quite weird and inconeivable, an actually pretty offensive too. Even though my daughter has a very strong will, as was clear even before she was born, that’s not something evil. It’s something which needs to be guided, and sometimes blocked off, but not everything a baby wants is evil. Babies are helpless creatures that have a lot of needs (food, diapers, attention) and crying is their best way of getting attention and communicate that they need something. It’s very normal for them to need these things, and they cannot do anything by themselves.
Yes, a baby can be hard to deal with (especially if she kills your sleep) but I fail to even see how it is possible to interpret babies as evil. But it seems like there are whole traditions that completely disagree with me, like the one latebloomer came from.
If I believed that my child had a sin nature that predisposed him to evil, that would certainly predispose me to interpret his actions very negatively.
When he insists on exploring the world and touching everything, I could see it as stubbornness. Instead, I am free to see it as healthy curiosity and a drive to discover the world. …
When he fights sleep at bedtime, or wakes up multiple times during the night, I could see it as defiance. Instead, I am free to assume that he has a real need. …
When he takes toys from other children, I could see it as selfishness. Instead, I am free to notice that he also spontaneously gives his toys to others. …
When he screeches for me to pick him up, I could see it as manipulation. Instead, I am free to see that he is just learning to feel and communicate, and crying is one of his main tools of communication right now. …
My child is not depraved. He is a good person with a lot of potential.
The extending of the theory of total depravity to babies to me sounds quite problematic. I am more into ancestral sin than strict Augustinian original sin, and therefore inclined to believe that children learn evil from the broken world around them, than that they are evil in themselves.
I don’t think my daughter is totally depraved. She is a like everybody, a flawed person with very good tendencies nonetheless (she already shared stuff when she was a crawling baby, she even shares her pacifier with me sometimes!) and unhealthy egoistic tendencies too, that need to be restrained. But totally depraved and an evil bundle of sin? Can anyone look at a baby and really believe that???? I don’t get it, and I hope I never will. Com’on, what evil nonsense is it? And it leads to quite violent ways of parenting too, as Elizabeth Esther, a post-fundamentalist woman, recalls in this very interesting post:
Sometimes I wonder what motivated such harsh discipline. Was part of it the rigorous meeting schedule that required all children to sit through 5 hours of meetings on Sundays? I mean, how else do you get a 2 year old to sit quietly through 5 hours of meeting? Lots of spankings, of course.
But I wonder if the other part, the part that gets to the deeper root of why there was so much harsh discipline was due to our deeply ingrained assumptions about who we were. We believed in the inherent evil of all humans.
Isn’t it easier to repeatedly spank your child when you believe she’s inherently evil? In our group, parents started spanking their babies when they were around 6 months old because this was when babies started trying to “manipulate” their parents by exerting their “rebellious will.”
Apparently there’s a very popular method or parenting, based on a book called ‘to train up a child’ by Mike and Debi Pearl, a method that even cost lives of children! (Find more posts by Elizabeth Esther on the subject here) If we are to judge the tree by its fruits, then I would say that this method is a very good candidate of the words ‘total depravity’, actually…
So I restate I’m glad that I’ve never encountered this kind of stuff. Really glad. It is really destructive. I think I grew up with a vague idee of the ‘age of accountability’ theory, which probably isn’t without its own problems. But at least it affirms that babies are not evil ‘bundles of sin’. They are imperfect and flawed, like we all. But I would agree with love, joy, feminism, that there’s a very big blind spot in it:
The Pearls explain how to exact immediate obedience from your children. And you know what? Immediate obedience sounds really nice. The Pearls promise that if I follow their spanking method my daughter will do whatever I want when I want it. If I followed the Pearls, my daughter would never embarrass me in public. I would never have to wait on my daughter while she tries the stairs one more time. Instead, it would be whatever I said, the moment I said it. That’s very appealing, but you know what? If that’s not pure selfishness, I don’t know what is.
I’ve used this experience as a reminder to better listen to my daughter and her needs. I’ve also used it as a reminder of my own selfishness. My daughter and I aren’t enemies or opponents, we’re just two flawed humans stuck together by blood and deep affection. We’re a team, and we need to treat each other with mutual respect and make sure to consider each other’s needs and feelings. And sometimes I guess I need a reminder of that
That last paragraph could be from my wife, and sums up quite good how I see parenting… But I suppose that that’s another sign that neither of us is even capable of thinking hierarchically in the way some people do… Yes, a child cannot do much by herself, and needs to be guided, restricted, led in the right direction, and disciplined sometimes. But the goal is to initiate her in life as a human being, not to train her up like a dog, or program her like a computer.
What do you think?