When your child sins

Teens do a lot of astonishingly foolish things. They also do a lot of sinful things, and one of the great challenges of parenthood is the question of how to react to the inevitable foolishness and sin that come with learning how to be a man or a woman.

It’s easy for our love for our children (more charitably) or our pride (less charitably) to make us expect a sinlessness from them that we know is beyond our own reach. Every one of us could list persistent sins with which we’ve struggled for years: pride or lust or gossip or lack of faith. We can think back to sins we’ve committed that nauseate us with their selfishness or perversion or rebellion. The Christian is never satisfied with anything short of holiness, but we also recognize that sanctification is a process and the presence of sin does not nullify the promise of salvation. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Your children are born sick, just like you. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need a Savior.

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Show, don’t tell

Your children badly need to see your faith making your life unpleasant.

You see, real things make demands upon us. A puppy is not the same as a stuffed animal, and even a little child can feel the difference when a play date is cut short to go home and take Fido out for a walk. When my wife was a little girl she had a paper cutout “husband” with whom she played at times, and then at other times she would pack him away in a drawer. That’s not an option with her real husband–I may need to talk, or need dinner, or need a hug, even when she’s tired and out of sorts. Even something as basic as gravity tells us it’s there by restricting what we can do. Real things disrupt your life.

In some parts of the world, Christian children hear their parents telling them God is real by hand-writing copies of the one village Bible, or gathering in hidden rooms to worship, or being carted off to prison or death because they will not deny their Lord. In America, we tell our children God is real by having an Easter egg hunt.

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Good and bad from the same clay

Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Their swords are implements of violence.
Let my soul not enter into their council;
Let not my glory be united with their assembly;
Because in their anger they slew men,
And in their self-will they lamed oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will disperse them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

With these words, Jacob cursed his sons for their treacherous assault on the Canaanite city of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. When the rapist, Shechem, prince of the city, requested her hand in marriage, Levi and Simeon insisted that all inhabitants of Shechem must first be circumcised. Convinced, the citizens of Shechem submitted to the procedure and then, “on the third day, when they were in pain… two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city unawares, and killed every male” (Genesis 34).

And Jacob cursed Simeon and Levi for their wrath, for it was cruel.

It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it. […]

Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies—then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” (Exodus 32:19-20, 25-29)

And God blessed Levi for their wrath, for it was righteous.

It appears the Levites were a people prone to wrath. The two major scenes in which Levi (as a man and then as a tribe) plays a starring role both feature massacres in response to evil. In both situations, Levi takes the initiative, stepping forward from the crowd–from among his brothers to avenge their sister, from among the other tribes to avenge their God–to deal violence as punishment for heinous wrongdoing. Not everyone has the courage, the strength, and the fierceness for such a role. In fact, most don’t. Levi did.

In Genesis, Levi earns a curse by responding to evil with an unjust and cruel violence, a violence few others would have dared. In Exodus, Levi’s curse is transformed to blessing by responding to evil with a righteous, obedient violence, a violence few others would have dared. Both the sin and the resulting curse, and the virtue and the resulting blessing, were the fruit of a unique personality trait: a willingness, even an inclination, to respond to evil with violence–a trait which was in itself neither virtuous nor vicious. When driven by sinful human motivations, it turned to sin. When submitted to divine authority, it turned to righteousness.

The story of Levi reminded me of Dr. Wendy Mogel’s observation in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,

I begin by telling these audiences, “Think of your child’s worst trait. The little habit or attitude that really gets on your nerves. Or bring the medium-sized habit that your child’s teacher keeps bringing up at parent conferences. Or the really big one that wakes you up at three in the morning with frightening visions of your little guy all grown up and living alone in an apartment in West Hollywood, plotting a shooting spree at the post office…

Good. Now you’re one step of ahead of where you were a moment ago, because now you know your child’s greatest strength. It’s hidden in his worst quality, just waiting to be let out.”

Dr. Mogel’s point is that a child’s strongest traits provide the raw material for his or her greatest virtues–if properly tended. The parent’s job is to patiently work to transform bossiness into leadership, recklessness into courage, nosiness into concern for others, hyperactivity into creativity, talkativeness into eloquence, quietness into a listening ear. Of course, the talkative child also needs to learn to be quiet when appropriate, the quiet child needs encouragement to speak up at the right time, and so on, but wise parents learn the shape of their child’s soul and work with the grain, not against it. The answer to a Levi’s strength is not to hope for atrophy, but to teach him to put on the full armor of God before going to war.

So it is for each of us. No matter our condition, all we can do at any given moment is take our whole selves and lay them before the Father, ready at that moment to be used in whatever way He sees fit. Like Levi, our only concern is that, when the call is raised “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me,” we come, yielding whatever may be in us to be used by the One who does all things well. Whatever past sin might have flowed from a particular facet of our personality, only one question matters now: Whose is it? So long as it is utterly submitted to God, to be used, cultivated, changed, or even destroyed, as He sees fit, no evil can result; and perhaps great good, unexpected good, a blessing bestowed in place of a curse.

The dangers of risk-avoidance

Kids sometimes get hurt playing in treehouses. If we create exacting national safety standards for treehouses, fewer kids will get hurt. That can only be a good thing, right?

Medical researchers in Ohio published a paper this month suggesting national safety standards for treehouses after statistics showed that 2,800 children a year are hurt in accidents linked to them. The injuries ranged from bruises to broken bones, but all were serious enough to send the children to the emergency room.

It’s the same instinct that motivated this lady’s neighbor to call the police because her children were climbing a tree.

A woman, upset, saying, “You could fall and get hurt and not be able to walk again!”

So I approached her and said, “It’s okay with me if they climb the tree.”

“It’s not okay with me! They could get hurt!” She repeated some variations on this theme.

I agreed: “You’re right. They could get hurt. It’s still okay with me.”

“It’s not okay with me! I’m calling the police.”

Because if you aren’t in a tree, you’ll never get hurt falling out of a tree. It’s a simple, feel-good solution to an obvious danger. And because it’s so obvious, we never consider the hidden costs. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes,

One U.S. researcher suggests that a generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to even smaller spaces. Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement), calls them “containerized kids” – they spend more and more time in car seats, high chairs, and even baby seats for watching TV. When small children do go outside, they’re often placed in containers – strollers – and pushed by walking or jogging parents. Most kid-containerizing is done for safety concerns, but the long-term health of these children is compromised. In the medical journal the Lancet, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland reported a study of toddler activity where the researchers clipped small electronic accelerometers to the waistbands of seventy-eight three-year-olds for a week. They found that the toddlers were physically active for only twenty minutes a day. […]

As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.

Leonard Sax points out another hidden cost of risk-avoidance in Why Gender Matters.

Let’s go back to Lizette Peterson’s study, where she rigged up a stationary bike so kids could “ride” through a hazardous environment. Peterson then asked asked all the parents whether their kids had ever been injured riding a bike, injured badly enough to require medical attention. She found that kids who had been injured were less fearful doing the simulation than kids who had never been injured – even after controlling for the degree of confidence kids felt riding bicycles. She calls this the “invulnerability” effect. When a kid has fallen and (let’s say) scraped a knee or gotten a cut, they recover. One week later that kid is thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I got hurt and now I’m fine.”

Child psychologist Wendy Mogel has written a charming book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Without mentioning the theory of learned helplessness, she points out that shielding children from injury makes them more risk-averse. And, letting them explore their world – at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts – builds their character and gives them self-confidence, resilience, and self-reliance.

If children never climb trees and are only exposed to industrial-strength treehouses “lower than 10 feet up, [with] several inches of soft mulch below it and using solid, 38-inch-high barriers instead of guardrails,” they well be very safe. They may be physically and emotionally weaker and less capable of healthy risk-assessment, but they will be very, very safe.

Dirt, worms, and health

From The New York Times,

In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” […]

Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.