Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:4–6
Jesus’ words tell us what great value the soul of a little child has in the eyes of God. Spiritually, every child is close to the throne of God, to the heart of God, and every child has a guardian angel who always sees the face of the Father in heaven (Matt. 18:10).
When a baby comes into the world it is as though he or she brings the pure air of heaven along. At every birth we feel that something of God is born, that something of eternity has come down to us. The innocence of a child is an enormous blessing.
The childlike spirit must be protected – but also nurtured.
In spite of the innocence of every child, however, there is also an inclination to sin in each one (Ps. 51:5). That is why it is such a terrible thing to lead a child astray. Children are corrupted not only by intentionally misleading them to sin, but by exposing them to anything that violates the atmosphere of innocence around them and deprives them of their childlikeness. So many of the images to which children are exposed today – on television and the internet, at shopping malls, and at school – are created by adults obsessed with sex, violence, power, and money. Is it any wonder that children lose their childlike spirit and childhood itself?
The best thing we can do for our children is to ensure that the whole atmosphere in which they live is filled with the spirit of purity and ruled by love. The inner education of children – the task of leading them to respect and to love God, their parents, their teachers, and everyone around them – is a holy privilege. Here it is of utmost importance that we pray for God’s spirit to arouse our children’s wills for what is pure, genuine, and good. Guiding children to do what is good is far more important than teaching them to recite verses or to say prayers which may not come from the heart. That is why my church avoids formal religious instruction as such. We feel that children can learn to love God best through simple songs, stories from the Bible, and the daily example of adults around them who love each other.
In leading children to Jesus it is important that we ourselves have a childlike attitude toward his commandments and sayings, toward the angel-world, and toward the Bible as a whole. How very quickly and simply children take these things into their hearts!
We can also bring our children to God through the world around them, by helping them to sense him in all they see – in sun, moon, and stars; birds and animals; trees and flowers; mountains and thunderstorms. Children instinctively want to live in nature and with nature, and in every child there is a love for the earth, a joy in the starry sky, and a warm fondness for everything living. To a child, the world of God and his angels is often much closer and more real than we suspect.
Through nature and through the Bible, children will encounter suffering and death at an early age. While it is important for us to teach them to have a heart for those who suffer, it is equally important not to burden or frighten them. In general, too many facts about the cycle of life – of reproduction, birth, and death – can harm a child’s inner experience of God’s world. Birth and death are mysteries that can only be understood in relationship to God, and there is danger of irreverence in saying too much.
In this respect, we need to have a greater awe and reverence for pregnancy and childbirth. It is not without reason that Jesus compares the end times and the coming of a new world with a mother in labor, and the tremendous joy of the new life after all the pain and agony. Whenever a couple is expecting a child, a deep mystery is present. We can do great inward harm whenever we talk lightly or joke about pregnancy or draw too much attention to it. A quiet, humble anticipation will instill a natural reverence in children for God’s gift of new life.
Concerning sex, especially, it is not necessary for a child or even an adolescent to know everything. It is all too easy to destroy our children’s sense of the sacredness and mystery of life with too much discussion and exposure. Today as never before, parents must be alert to the insidious dangers of our sex-crazed culture, which can all too easily infiltrate our homes – through what we and our children see, hear, and read.
I am not in any way suggesting that children be brought up ignorant of the basic facts of life. I only mean that these things should never be separated from the world of God. The main thing is that we do not disturb the purity of childhood – the natural relationship of every child to his or her creator.
Education means rousing a child to choose right over wrong.
To protect the purity of children means to win them for the good. It is wrong to suppose that a child is not tempted to sin. As parents we must always be ready to fight evil in our children, whether it takes the form of lying, stealing, disrespect, or sexual impurity. But we must do this without too many rules (Col. 2:20–22). Moralism, which always involves suspicion and mistrust, ruins the childlike spirit. Obedience is never enough. Compliance alone does not build a child’s character. On the one hand, children cannot be left unprotected to fall prey to whatever evil comes their way. On the other hand, we should not discourage them by constantly haranguing them about their faults. True education does not mean molding or squelching a child with constant criticism. It means rousing him or her to choose right over wrong.
We must be careful not to spoil our children even from an early age. Spoiling leads to selfishness, lack of self-control, and deep discontent; in other words, it leads to sin. Parents who spoil their children often confuse love with emotionalism. They think they will win their children by clinging to them, but in actual fact they only hinder them from developing into healthy, independent beings. To treat one’s children as one’s emotional property is to lack reverence for them as images of God in their own right.
Among older children, disrespect toward peers, educators, and parents is not uncommon. Disrespect shows itself in many ways. Among boys it may take the form of machismo (which is mostly a cover-up for cowardice, and is only displayed when others are present) or a lack of consideration for others, or irreverent or destructive behavior. Singing may be despised as effeminate, signs of affection to babies may be scoffed at, and everything religious or moral is apt to be mocked. Among girls disrespect often shows itself in cruel gossip or backbiting, secrecy, and over-sensitivity to criticism.
Because children who demonstrate such tendencies are insecure, they are susceptible to peer pressure and will often turn to the support of a clique. Parents and teachers need to be alert to this, because the exclusive nature of even the friendliest clique is never healthy. The best antidote to cliquishness is positive guidance, care, and genuine interest in each child.
Every child instinctively longs for a good conscience.
The question of sexual impurity in children needs special sensitivity and discernment. My father writes:
How to fight against sin in children is a very difficult question. If there are indecencies, for example, which mostly begin with children exposing themselves to each other and sometimes touching each other, the child will feel instinctively that this is not right. These indecencies almost always involve lying. We must be careful not to make too much of such things among children. It may only draw their attention to the sexual area all the more. The best thing, perhaps, is to admonish them and so close the matter, and then help them to think of other things.
We grown-ups too easily forget that many things do not mean the same to a child as they do to us, and we must never project our ideas and feelings and experiences onto a child’s mind (Titus 1:15). We must also never forget that it is in a certain way natural for children to go through periods of sexual curiosity. This cannot be mistaken for sin. But we should lead our children in such a way that their souls remain pure and innocent. Too much questioning can harm a child, because through fear he or she may become more and more entangled in lies.
It is a great injustice to label children or adolescents, especially those who have offended in the sexual area. In our assessment of childish offenses, we should beware of coming too quickly to harsh conclusions about a child’s character or future development. Rather, we should help him or her to find new interests and to make a joyful new beginning.
We know that we can find the way to the heart of any child by appealing to the conscience. Every child has an instinctive, heartfelt longing for a pure conscience, and we should support this longing so that he or she does not suffer from a burdened conscience.
There is a certain point at which children are no longer children in the true sense of the word. The moment they sin consciously, they cease to be children. It is then the task of parents and teachers to help them find repentance, the experience of Jesus on the cross, and a conversion that leads to the forgiveness of sins. Through the cross a lost childhood can be restored.1
Purity, like impurity, is learned by example.
For parents, the importance of seeking a relationship of trust with their children from earliest childhood cannot be emphasized enough. We cannot wait for problems that may only arise around the age of five or six. If we do not build relationships with our children while they are still young, we may never gain the trust and respect necessary to solve the more serious problems that will come with adolescence.
The years between thirteen and twenty-one are especially crucial, of course, since it is during these years that children become increasingly aware of their sexuality. How easy it is for parents – and whole churches – to turn a blind eye to the teenagers right in front of them and to fail them miserably simply by ignoring them. How different our high schools and youth centers would be if parents took time for their teenagers! Plenty of parents warn them about alcohol, drugs, and the dangers of sexual experimentation, but how many take time on a regular basis to guide their children’s interests and encourage them to use their time creatively? Committed parents will remain in close touch with their children throughout the ups and downs of adolescence. Fathers will be not only fathers to their children – they will be comrades and friends as well; mothers will be the same.
Young people always need someone to confide in. Whether it is a parent, pastor, counselor, or friend, there must be someone they trust with whom they can freely share their joys or struggles, and with whom they can talk openly about sex without shame or embarrassment.
Today’s teenagers are simply presented with too many options. Our culture believes variety is the key to freedom and fulfillment; but in actual fact, it may be the key to confusion. Too few people are willing to warn teenagers of the painful emotional scars that follow on the heels of uncommitted sexual activity. There are even fewer who are able to point them to the hope of forgiveness after they have failed.
For this reason, trusted role models are especially needed. Children spend more time than ever on their own; across the social spectrum, latchkey kids are increasingly common. It is no accident that today’s children have been dubbed by some experts as “Generation Alone,” or that studies assign words like “abandoned,” or “alienated” to describe them.
Lest we forget, purity, like impurity, is learned first and foremost by example (Titus 2:6–8). Children need to see that the love between their parents is indissoluble, and to know that certain looks, touches, and words of affection are appropriate only between a married man and woman. They need to see that physical intimacy belongs to marriage alone and that experimentation of any sort beforehand will only stain a later marriage. They certainly need to be spared the confusion and pain of broken relationships and sexual sin in or among adults around them.
That is why it is so important that the church has a central place in family life. Children must be able to see living examples of purity not only in their parents, but in everyone around them, whether married or single.
The best safeguard against sin is love.
Purity cannot be fostered in a vacuum. Children and youth need to gain a heart for Jesus and his cause of peace and social justice. When their hearts are filled with God and inspired for his cause, they will instinctively react against evil. When we lead them to recognize the needs of others, they will long to reach out in love. The idea that children have no social conscience, no feeling for the suffering, injustice, and guilt of our world is simply not true – this can only happen if they are brought up in an artificial environment that revolves around their own comfort and pleasure. When genuine children come face to face with the need of others, or when they see others reaching out to the needy, they will have an inner urge to extend their own love in practical ways.
The best safeguard against sin is always love. Love binds together all the virtues in perfect unity (Col. 3:14). Love is the message we need to bring to our children and youth, most importantly by demonstrating love in everything we ourselves say and do. So many young people today live for themselves and for their own interests. They work hard to get good grades, to excel in sports, to win the recognition earned by a scholarship – all of which is commendable. But how many of them care about their neighbors or the misery of the world around them? We need to challenge and stretch our youth to interact with others less fortunate than themselves.
Often parents try to protect their teenagers by anxiously shielding them from situations of impurity or violence. Yet perhaps what they really need is the opposite: the opportunity to stand on their own feet and witness to what they themselves – not just their parents – believe.
Children need to reach out and learn what others of their time are thinking and feeling, including those from different religious backgrounds. They need to relate to their peers and to the burning social, political, and economic issues of their day. They need to have a heart for the despair of those who have turned to drugs and alcohol, and for those who suffer from abusive relationships in the home. Without the ability to understand and relate to others outside their sphere, they will have no real connection to the world around them and may never be given the opportunity to test their own convictions.
We will not raise perfect children, but I firmly believe that it is possible to raise children who will respond to our guidance and discipline, in spite of the terrible corruption and darkness of our age (Prov. 22:6). As long as we are able to maintain a relationship of mutual respect and reverence, we will find the way forward with our children. It will cost a fight, sometimes a serious one, yet for the sake of a child’s soul a battle is always worthwhile. Naturally, our children may grow up to choose a path of life different from that which we would have chosen for them. But if we pray to Jesus for his guidance every day, we can be confident that he will lead us and them.
1 Discipleship, 177–178.