If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:8-9
Despite the sinful inclination of every human being, children are closer to God than we are, and if anyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, it is they. But it is a mistake to regard children as naturally good — to see them through rose-colored glasses and to excuse everything they do as merely childish.
We must remember that when children do wrong, they do not always mean things the way we adults might. But it is still wrong to think that they are not susceptible to sin. They are, and must be helped to choose right over wrong again and again. Because their will is still completely free, they must not be allowed to fall prey to evil, but be won over for the good.
Harshness and cruelty of any kind is always wrong, but so is permissiveness. Thus discipline and even punishment are still necessary, but this depends on a relationship of love and trust. If we love God and want to guide our children to him, we will find the biblical "salt" that true love demands.
Regardless of how young a child is, he can always learn to apologize after doing something wrong – and mean it. Humility takes a lifetime to learn, and parents who don't instill it in their children when they are small will discover that it gets harder as they grow older. Thus the saying, "Little children, little problems; big children, big problems" should not be dismissed as an old cliché; parents who conquer stubbornness in a three-year-old will be far ahead of those who wait to tackle the same problem in a teenager.
Sometimes bad behavior is a cry for attention or a reaction to a lack of love. In these cases we should not jump to conclusions or assume a child has consciously done wrong. Children are the center of their own little universes; they see the whole world around them from their perspective. When they take something to themselves enthusiastically, it is not because they are selfish, but because they have become absorbed in it. Such natural self-centeredness is not in itself wrong. All the same, children will need help to see beyond themselves as they grow older.
When children show off or hurt others – or when they lie or steal – it is tempting to blame only them. But wise parents will also look at themselves, and wonder what it is in them that might have led to such behavior. Blumhardt advises us to turn the sword against ourselves, and to cut out the sin in our own hearts – sin that may be resurfacing in our offspring.
Children who are jealous or quarrelsome should be helped to work out their differences in a positive manner. Children also have an amazing capacity for compassion, and our main focus should be to affirm this capacity, and not to fight their selfish inclinations. In this way, they will begin to grasp the meaning of the two greatest commandments: "Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul," and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37-39).
It is important, too, for them to learn that life is not a level playing field – that it is not "fair." Those who can accept this at an early age will be better equipped to handle the cruelties of adulthood. Still, we must not ignore the effects of a child's personality and place in a family or class. Is he or she the oldest child? The youngest? Don't show favoritism, and remember that generosity is taught best by example, not by lengthy lectures.
Often embarrassment or shame will cause children to wriggle out of something by telling a half-truth. If they are really afraid of the consequences for what they have done, they may tell an outright lie. This should not surprise us. Still, if a child has been dishonest, it is important to establish the facts, and then help the child face them and make amends.
If you think a child has lied but aren't certain, don't press him into making a confession. Trying to catch a child "in the act" or probing into all possible motives does great harm; it weakens self-confidence and destroys trust. Simply let the child know that you are unhappy about the situation and leave the door open for setting the matter straight later. Children almost always respond to such a suggestion, and may even wake their parents in the middle of the night to admit to a lie because their conscience bothers them. When the truth comes out, applaud them for having made a clean slate. And forgive them, as Jesus himself commands us: "Forgive, so your Father in heaven will forgive you" (Mark 11:25).
Childish questions about people's differences should be answered plainly, but mockery, disrespect, and derision should always be confronted; what starts as irreverence for other people can quickly turn into irreverence for God. For this reason, name-calling and teasing, as well as imitating another person's mannerisms or physical characteristics, should not be brushed off.
As for sexual sin, indecency should never be ignored, but harshness and moralism can cause great and even irreparable harm. Children go through periods of sexual curiosity, and we should never project our adult perversions onto them. They will ask questions about their bodies and about sex, which we should answer truthfully and without embarrassment — though without offering more information than they have asked for.
If a child offends in the sexual area, parents should appeal to the conscience, helping the child to choose right over wrong. Because a child will instinctively feel that what he has done is wrong, he may lie about it. Still, parents should be careful not to make too much of the matter; they should determine what actually took place, discipline the child, and then move on. Lengthy questioning and interrogation will only draw attention to the sexual area and burden the child even more.
My parents, who both worked as teachers, never tired of emphasizing what a great injustice it is to label children or adolescents for their misdeeds. They warned against drawing conclusions about a child's character and future development, and emphasized a constructive approach to help the child find new interests.
Given the bewildering array of child rearing methods that are promoted today, what good advice can parents trust? Benjamin Spock, whose books influenced an entire generation, suggested that parents know more than they think they know, and that they should trust their God-given instincts and abilities. To a degree, he was right: we need to trust our own judgment if we are to be effective parents. But there is more to parenthood than techniques and methods, and that is where God comes in. In searching for the best answers for their children, humble parents will always turn to him in prayer first.
To give children up as "hopeless" shows a lack of love and faith. If we truly love our children, we will never throw up our hands in despair. Even at the end of the roughest day, we cannot lose joy in them, and must believe that Christ's power to redeem and heal is there for them as much as it is for us.
From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.