By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
One of the most chilling areas of psychology, for me is clinical child psychology. I’m not sure why, exactly. Perhaps it’s a result of my stint at the children’s ward at a state mental hospital during my CPE experience. Or perhaps it’s because a too-close examination of the inner workings of the childhood psyche explodes any naivete we may want to hold onto related to children’s innocence (“children should be seen and not heard.”). Or perhaps it’s the horrifying experience of witnessing unleashed raw psychic emotional energy from the id without the restraining correctives of accumulated layers of social constraints adults enjoy which keep them from killing each other at any given moment (have you witnessed a childhood tantrum?).
Christian communities have always had to deal with the question of sin, sins, and children. Some believe children are born with original sin, so the notion that young children are capable of lying comes as no surprise. Others believe in an age of innocence followed by an age of accountability. And while the point at which a child passes from one age to another varies (from seven to thirteen to seventeen years of age historically) for any parent holding that viewpoint the point at which a child can exert his or her own will comes chillingly early, usually at the third word the child learns to utter: “No!”
In the article “Learning to Lie”, in New York magazine Po Bronson states,
Kids lie early, often, and for all sorts of reasons—to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there’s a singular theory for one way this habit develops: They are just copying their parents.
Why it matters
Bronson’s article is informative. It can provide an eye-opener for parents and adults in understanding their role in teaching children how to lie by their own behavior. The issue is important related to children’s spiritual and faith formation. One of the most insightful Christian writers challenged uncritical notions of the connection between bad behavior and true moral character. C. S. Lewis wrote,
“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” Lewis also stated, “Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg.”
One dilemma for Christian educators and clergy is that their anxious parents of children and teenagers will tend to overfocus on behavior, and demand the church teach their offspring to behave as Christians, with not too much concern about whether they are actually Christians. As one French theologian put it, it’s not much more than teaching pagans to behave like Christians.
Often, parents are more concerned that a child apologize (behave socially appropriately) than be remorseful about an infraction and understand why it was wrong. Or, worse, too often the goal of discipline in the form or punishment is to ensure the child will feel bad as a detriment to bad behavior. Neither are formative in the way parents intend them to be.
Here is one insight from Bronson’s article, citing research from Nancy Darling from Penn State:
…the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids, Darling observes. They’ve set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy, allowing them freedom to make their own decisions.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).