Recently at dinner 5-year-old Sean said, “Today in chapel Ms. X took a bunch of scraps of paper and set fire to them in a bowl. And then when she showed us the bowl, there was nothing left! They were all gone!”
I felt my forehead wrinkling. “Why did she do that?
“To show us what God does,” Sean said matter-of-factly. “When he throws it out.”
Little warning sirens started blaring in my head.
“Yeah, when God burns us.”
Deep breath. I tried to speak calmly, and was only half successful. “Listen, God doesn’t burn anybody. God loves us.”
Sean got a very patient expression on his face. “You don’t understand, Mommy. Ms. X did it to show us how God burns the sin out of our hearts.”
Shit shit shit shit shit. Another deep breath. I moved my chair around the corner of the table and shifted his chair too so we were facing each other. How do you find the perfect tone that conveys the seriousness of what you’re saying without scaring your kid?
“Sean, listen to me. This is very important. You don’t have sin in your heart. God loves you, and God made you and your heart good. When God looks at you he sees the amazing, wonderful person he made. God loves you so much, and who you are made to be is good, is exactly right.”
His little face was crumpling and as he burst into tears he threw himself into my arms. “I don’t know why I’m crying, Mommy,” he said, “sometimes I just have tears down my face.”
I held him close and told him that I love him, that God loves him, that it’s okay to cry. I explained that people believe different things about God, and that he will hear things at school that Daddy and I don’t agree with. I hope that my son’s tears were the release of any shame or fear he might have felt during the chapel lesson, that the message they were trying to stamp on his brain will be washed away by my words and his emotion. In the privacy of my own thoughts I curse the Christian school and swear to myself that next year Sean will be going to public school.
People, can we just stop already with telling little kids they are sinful? Maybe there are kids who can hear that God burns the sin out of our hearts and it makes no impression on their highly malleable brains (though from what I’ve learned about child development I doubt it) but I am speaking as one of those kids who heard those kinds of messages and thoroughly internalized them– which was the whole point, right? The intention is for kids to internalize it! I am here today as a 31-year-old woman to inform you that telling a child their heart is sinful and that God can’t tolerate sin is toxic as hell and it can seriously fuck up their entire psyche. If you think that little kids can’t make the connection, “if I’m sinful, and God can’t stand sin, therefore God can’t stand me”– think again. Kids are smart. And messages like that go deep, and they grow– like the spread of a malignant weed, that chokes out the healthy messages, or grafts onto them until everything is tainted.
A friend texted me that her own kids had been told by other kids in a school group that celebrating Halloween was a sin. My friend’s sensitive, thoughtful 8-year-old asked her why, worried that their family’s trick-or-treating meant that they loved God less. I shuddered. Why are 8-year-olds worrying about SIN?
Adam and Eve eat the apple, and that makes all of humanity sinners, each one of us born rebelling against God. My squabbles with my siblings? Sin. Challenging my parents? Sin. A bad attitude about something? Sin. All the people who committed unspeakable evil throughout history? It’s all sin– and I was just as capable of being that evil, if God didn’t restrain me by grace. My squabbles and back-talk were as worthy of eternal condemnation as Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews.
I was fourteen, and I wrote in my journal: …I confess that before Saturday I had been feeling rather empty, and I kept praying to God to help me appreciate my Sunday-school classes and that sort of thing. I am so self-centered and selfish, but that night I knew that it’s not about me. … it’s almost as if God has picked now to really begin working in my life- I think He’s calling me back to Him. I’ve strayed- I realize that now. I’ve been obsessed with my writing and placing it and other things before God. But I think now I’m just beginning to realize that it’s not about me, or my writing, or anything earthly. It’s about God! I mean, I know that, but I think now I’m finally beginning to try to live like I believe.
Prioritizing my writing, my own interests, my own feelings? Sin.
Not appreciating my Sunday school classes? Sin.
Not constantly thinking about God? Sin.
Your heart is wicked, I heard. (Jeremiah 17:9) Your mind is tainted by sin, I heard. Your own thoughts and feelings lie to you, I heard. You can’t trust yourself, I heard. We are born with a sin nature, I heard.
My very nature is sinful. My nature was and has always been passionate, romantic, idealistic, intensely emotional, empathic, intuitive, yearning after beauty and goodness. But I couldn’t trust my instincts or my intuition. (Your thoughts lie to you.) My romanticism and my big emotions could be dangerous. (Your feelings are deceitful.) Empathy had to be carefully restricted– after all, you can’t empathize with people in sin. And I learned to distrust all my natural yearnings (our natural state is in rebellion against God. If you long for it, it’s probably sinful.)
Even thinking well of myself was sinful. We don’t need “self-esteem” I read in a Christian publication, we need God-esteem! I was a talented piano student, and in my journals from my mid-teens when I was studying piano intensively, I wrote reminders to myself that “it’s not me, it’s God letting me play well.” I was worried I was prideful, afraid that if I didn’t acknowledge God in my playing enough then he would take back my talent. I couldn’t ever forget that I was sinful, that I wasn’t even capable of not sinning unless God gave me the grace to do right, to be right. And how desperately I longed to be right. But all my righteousness “was as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6.)
Puberty took it all to the next level. Suddenly sin wasn’t just in my heart, mind, feelings, and thoughts– now it was lurking in my body. Sin peered around the corners of my growing sexual awareness, ready to lure me off the path of purity and pounce on me. Sexuality wasn’t just a fact of life, it was like a bowling ball teetering on the edge of a high shelf, a great bomb of potential energy, potential sin, and the only way I could prevent the explosion of potential into kinetic was to enclose the whole shelf within a cupboard, shroud the bowling ball/bomb in darkness, and try to pretend it didn’t exist.
Do you know what can happen when a teenage girl believes her body is sinful or at least potentially sinful? Her body becomes the enemy. She sees her body’s needs as weaknesses, as failings, as evidence of her whole self’s unworthy, unlovable, sinful state. And she dissociates. She is divorced from her very self, from all the things that make her her. She treats herself with suspicion, annoyance, loathing.
And, if she’s like me, her body internalizes all that self-hatred and eventually turns on itself with auto-immune disorders and mental illness. (It’s all connected, people. If you don’t believe me, read The Body Keeps The Score.)
Fast forward ten years.
I am crying because I am at my wits’ end about Sean– my rainbow baby, my stubborn wild child, who at three years old throws tantrums that stagger me. All the things I thought I knew about parenting are coming up empty before the formidable force of Sean’s intensity.
“He’s a little sinner,” is some advice I am given. “He wants to rule his own little kingdom.” The unspoken implication is: you can’t let him win.
I still feel ashamed when I look back on that awful year, when I tried to isolate and spank my child out of his big feelings. Even though Sean probably won’t consciously remember the ways I messed up so badly, I still fear what kind of subconscious damage may linger. Why did I wait so many months to admit that this parenting worldview was failing my child, was failing our family?
It was because I was afraid.
Teach a child that she’s sinful– she might grow up to be a parent who is afraid to trust her own instincts, her own empathy, her own feelings. So when the Christian parenting experts tell her that her child’s (perfectly developmentally normal) tantrums are evidence of his own sinfulness, and that they must be disciplined accordingly, she will be too afraid not to listen and comply. Afraid to trust herself. Afraid for her child’s soul. Afraid that he will be lost to sin if she does not follow the experts.
I believe it was the Spirit of God who finally set me free of that fear. I can remember the day when I decided I cared more about my relationship with my child than about what the Christian experts said I had to do to be a holy parent. I started listening to my own instincts and to child development experts who have scientifically studied children’s brains. I started listening to my son. I turned my back on the rules of “biblical parenting” that had made us all so miserable, the rules that said my child was a sinner, that his will was naturally rebellious, and it was my job as a parent to control him. I started a timid foray into a new world where children are children– little human beings, not robots, little people who deserve respect and dignity, little beings whose brains and bodies are growing ferociously fast but don’t always synch up with each other. I learned– I am still learning– how to lean into my son’s big feelings, in the same way I long for somebody caring to lean into mine. I am learning how bad behavior in a child is almost always a signal that something else is going on, and that my job as the parent is to dig a little deeper, ask the questions, convey to my child that he is seen and heard and cared about. We talk about respecting boundaries, we talk about what is kind and what isn’t, what are appropriate and healthy ways to express our feelings and what aren’t. We talk about making good choices, and being in control of our bodies, both so that we don’t let other people hurt us, and we don’t hurt other people by being out of control. I don’t do any of it perfectly, and I still get impatient and snap at my kids and even shout now and then, and I still give time-outs when I’m too drained to do anything else, and “Because I SAID so!” is a reason I give more often than I could wish. But I’m learning. Nate is learning. Our whole family is learning.
And I’ll give you one guess as to what word we never use.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 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 who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18: 1-7)
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:13-14)
So look in the eyes of a little child. A quiet, gentle, thoughtful child. A wild, goofy, never-still, barely-listening child. An inquisitive, stubborn, annoyingly persistent child. A cranky, whiny, drive-you-up-the-wall child. A tantruming child who has you at the end of your rope. Look in their sticky, snotty, adorable, aggravating faces and know you are looking at the face of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is already here.
Though this passionate blog post might lead you to think otherwise, I am not denying that sin exists. I believe in sin. I just don’t believe sin is a burden to heap on little children and adolescents. The way I was raised, sin was my problem, an individual problem that had to be solved one individual at a time– by praying a prayer, or believing the right things, or having the right accountability partners, or reading the right Bible verses, by doing or not doing something. The idea of sin as something collective– something systemic– was never touched on.
I’m happy to talk about sin. Let’s talk about the collective sin that is systemic racism in the United States. Let’s talk about the injustices and sins of unfettered capitalism. Let’s talk about rape culture and domestic abuse. Let’s talk about the abuse of power in churches, in the American police culture, in the legal culture. Let’s talk about the sin of white nationalism and xenophobia. Let’s talk about the hatred of and discrimination against queer people. Let’s talk about this country’s Christians’ idolatry of a corrupt political leader who is a self-confessed predator, a pathological liar, narcissist, and racist bully.
Let’s stop talking to our children about their sinful attitudes and work on fixing our own attitudes towards people who don’t look like us, think like us, or believe the same things as we do. Let’s stop telling our children they need to ask forgiveness for doing things that are 100% developmentally normal and work on asking forgiveness for the ways we have profited from a system that has ground down the backs of the poor, the immigrants, and the racial minorities. And then let’s work on changing those systems. Let’s stop telling teenage girls their bodies are dangerous and sinful and start calling out and putting a stop to the perverts, the rapist-excusers and enablers, the legal and political system that says “boys will be boys” and treats girls as so much collateral. Let’s stop warning our kids about a future hell their tiny individual sins might send them to and look honestly at the hell we have collectively created here on earth. And then maybe we can get busy and start doing what Jesus did– feeding, touching, healing, loving, embracing the people who are the outcasts, calling out the people who are the oppressors– and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven.
I’ve realized it’s important to add that I do not blame my parents for this teaching that I absorbed. Whatever they did or said or didn’t do or say, they were guided by the Christian parenting “experts.” I don’t actually have any specific memories of them telling me that I was sinful. But they didn’t have to. It was there in the books and Sunday school lessons and sermons and “Adventures in Odyssey” episodes. It was there in the theology, the hymns, the Bible lessons. And that’s what makes it so dangerous. I was raised in a loving Christian home– and I still soaked up all this poison like a sponge.