are babies evil?

My daughter Hazel-Lore Cools, picture by Jo Cools, She’s not an evil bundle of sin!

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…

This post on the love, joy, feminism blog is a good example, as is the post on the latebloomer blog she quotes from. Let’s start with a quote from the first one:

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?



9 responses to “are babies evil?

  1. Werkelijk schokkend, sommige van de citaten in deze blog! Ik ben blij dat ik niet in zo’n sfeer ben opgegroeid, en opgevoed!
    Ik heb drie jongvolwassen dochters, en nu twee kleinkinderen, van bijna twee jaar oud, en 4 dagen oud, twee zusjes.
    De oudste heeft bij mij gelogeerd, de nacht dat haar zusje werd geboren. Het was prachtig om te zien hoe ze reageerde toen ze haar babyzusje voor het eerst zag: liefde op het eerste gezicht. Ze knuffelde en kuste haar zusje, heel voorzichtig.
    Natuurlijk zullen ze ook ruzie gaan maken, jaloers op elkaar zijn enzovoort.

    Maar pure slechtheid? Er zit in ons mensen een neiging om kwaad te doen, dat krijgen we mee vanaf het begin, ik ga daar geen theologische duiding van geven; het is te zien bij het opgroeien van elk kind, dat ze ook de neiging hebben om soms bewust ongehoorzaam te zijn, al heel jong.
    Maar er is ook vanaf het begin ontvankelijkheid voor liefde, en de mogelijkheid om liefde te beantwoorden met liefde.

    Aan ouders en anderen de taak om kinderen op te voeden, zodat ze om kunnen gaan met hun eigen wil, leren verantwoordelijkheid te dragen.

    Een kind slaan, en dat al vanaf zes maanden oud, volgens mij krijg je daar geen zelfstandige verantwoordelijke volwassenen van.

  2. lightbygrace71

    I was never taught so blatantly to see babies as ‘little bundles of sin’, but have been told that God considers it sin for even a toddler to disobey their parents….the concept of original sin, if you really think about it gives one no choice but to conclude that babies are evil at birth. The language of baby baptisms, once I really started to pay attention and think it through, implies that a baby isn’t even a valid member of the family of God until they have been taken through this ritual. As I wake up more and more to what is taught directly or indirectly in mainline churches, it (as my Mother-in-law would say) sometimes gives me pause. I am not against baby dedications, I would just prefer the language to reflect more of a ‘we affirm your identity as a beloved creation of God who will be raised to resist evil and know that Jesus Christ was sent to show you exactly how beloved you are’….this, I would be willing to bet, is what most folks, clergy included, really intend in the ritual anyway despite what the legalese might say….I hope so anyway….

    • Baby dedications is a subject that I didn’t even dare to touch here, also because I’m not really sure what exactly some people mean with it. The connection I’ve seen people make with the redemption of the firstborn sons in Exodus 13, which is something I do not understand at all…

  3. I envy you that you don’t understand the concept! Truly. I was brought up this way – not so much my parents but my church and my school. I am not a mother, and I may never be, but I’ve already begun a list of how I want to be a parent…based by and large on the things I’ve seen and heard and been taught that parents ought to do to/with their children that I think are dreadfully wrong.

  4. Original sin is stupid, in all its forms. Babies aren’t rebellious or selfish..they’re helpless. They cry because they need something, and if you don’t give it to them, they die. They cry because they can’t do for themselves. Those who call babies selfish are themselves the ones who are selfish. They don’t want to hear the cry of a baby that needs food. Let all Calvinists burn in the lowest hell and heat it 7 billion times hotter, Lord, for thy wrath must be against such inhuman freaks to a high degree, for with the froward thou shalt show thyself froward! AMEN!

    • I agree with what you say about babies, and I understand your problems with calvinism, but please don’t damn anyone to hell here. Those are very cruel words my friend.

      Bless those who persecute you…

      • I’ll bless those that persecute me. But those who abuse children psychologically by telling them at the earliest age possible “You are the problem with the world” (go to any Calvinist blog post about raising children, and they use these exact words, and they say you should tell this to your children daily), against them is that passage that it would have been better for a millstone to have been hanged around their neck than to offend one of these little ones.

  5. Well, for me, a baby dedication would be more about ME promising to raise the baby in the ways of Jesus…But that’s just me and how I would do it (and maybe not even in an official ritual, but just me talking to Papa!)…That’s if I had kids, which I don’t and won’t so I really don’t have to worry about it. 🙂

  6. Pingback: The scary consequences of baby universalism… | Brambonius' blog in english

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