Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spirit and Flesh

This is a bit of a continuation of my theme from last time (which I will probably be continuing again as I read more), but I am going to follow a slightly different line of thought about child development today.

As I've been reading books like "Baby Hearts", "The Irreducible Needs of Children", and "The Science of Parenting", I have been thinking about the unique interaction between the spirit and the body. As a Christian, I believe that people are born with a 'sinful nature'. None of us are perfect. We all need to be trained to not be selfish and egocentric in order to be likeable, functional friends, parents, spouses, and employees. Yet, even those who have had excellent upbringing and good training will be quick to admit that they have heart bent toward sin and selfishness. (That's why we need a Savior full of grace!)

Anyhow, I've been thinking of this in the context of raising little children. Of course, I only have 15 months of personal experience, but I, like most parents, will admit that babies are rather self-centered and certainly have a sinful nature. However, I have a problem with some of the teaching I have heard from various sources about what constitutes sin in a small child and how to deal with it.

For instance, I remember in 7th grade, in Bible class in our little country Baptist school, having a conversation with the Pastor (who played every role from soccer coach, to principal, to Bible teacher, and was a wonderful man, bless his heart!) in which he told us that babies who were crying were lying. Now, even as a 13-year-old, I didn't think this made sense. I remember arguing that maybe they were being selfish, but they weren't lying! As I've learned more about babies, I stand by my middle-school opinion. A newborn cries out of instinct to be taken care of, for goodness sake! I don't think it is fair to accuse a tiny baby of selfish sin when he is just instinctively telling you he needs to be fed or changed or burped or held. Fact is, he DOES need all those things, he is just telling you the only way he knows how.

As babies grow, we see that they change in the way they communicate. They learn to point, say words, sign, or make noises (my daughter has made a closed-mouth 'mmmm' sound when she wants something for months and months even though she knows a lot of words now). Do I accuse my 15- month- old of selfishness because she asks for her milk? No! She is just telling me what she needs, just like she did when she cried as a newborn.

Some methods of baby 'training' call for teaching a baby to sleep through the night or feed on a strict schedule by a certain age (like six weeks). These methods might work for the right combination of baby and mom, but it bothers me when I hear people say that a baby needs to start learning from the day of birth that he is NOT the center of the world.

Sure, I understand the idea of needing to train a child out of the egocentricity they are born with eventually, but in the first six weeks? I respectfully disagree. Most parents that I know instinctively feel that baby IS the center of the universe for a while (especially with the first child!). It kind of seems fair to me to let each baby play that role for a while. Why not let him know he is loved and secure and you are ALWAYS there for him when he is first born? By the way, I'm not saying that you don't love your child if you schedule him or let him cry it out once or twice! I'm just saying the underlying attitude of the necessity of teaching an infant that he is not the center of the universe bothers me.

Most scientific research today (don't worry, I DO take secular 'research', and most other things... with a grain of salt), says you CAN'T spoil a little baby. When you respond quickly to him, you give him security. Many people will not agree with me, but I prefer an approach like that advocated by psychologist John Rosemond, who recommends letting Baby be the center of the universe (within reason, this doesn't mean letting a 12 month old do anything and everything he wants!) by responding to him quickly and lovingly and being his safety net and security until about the age of 18 months. Around then, a child developmentally starts to be able to think with self-awareness (of himself as separate from others). This is the age when Rosemond recommends starting to really buckle down in the effort to teach the child that he actually isn't the center of the world.

Of course, I am not explaining it as well as he does, but I hope you understand the point that a little baby needs security and safety and grace-filled discipline as he learns and explores. As he gets nearer to two, he is developmentally able to handle learning to be less egocentric. The key here is that the first 18 months of security lays the foundation for the more rigorous training of the second and third (and following) years. If you have ever read anything by Rosemond, you'll know he is the last person to advocate spoiling a child, overloading him with attention, or letting him run the show!

Finally, I come to the problem of the occasional person (or group) who believes that a small child needs very strict discipline for his emotions. As I've read through books about brain chemistry and developmental stages, I've been thinking about how detrimental it could be to be very strict with a child who is learning to handle his emotions. Tantrums are often, as the books say, a child's inability to handle the feelings of disappointment or anger he feels when he can't get his own way.

This is where it gets knotty. The child is a little sinner, right? As parents, aren't we supposed to be training them toward good behavior? Sure. I'm not talking about letting the child have whatever he wants or not teaching him to share because it makes him angry. I'm just talking about validating his legitimate feelings. "Grow up, you're a big boy, you can handle it", or "It's just a little toy, it's not a big deal that it broke!" are rather insensitive remarks to make to a little one. To them, their emotions is very real and very overwhelming. (For goodness sake, I still get emotional about ridiculous things sometimes!)

Something more akin to a sympathetic, "I know it's disappointing that you didn't get what you wanted for lunch, but that is just the way it has to be" is a little more sensitive. I have found it helpful to remember this when my daughter gets mad about something and bites the nearest piece of furniture or bangs her head on the floor a couple times. She is not necessarily being sinful, she is just learning how to control her emotions of frustration. I am not going to going to let her have her way, but I am going to try to remember that she is having a very real feeling, albeit a negative one, and will try not to make her think that the feeling itself is wrong. (On a side note, it bothers me also when kids have so many rules to follow that they are always getting in trouble for breaking one. Let kids be kids for awhile, they'll grow up soon enough!)

The danger of not letting a child feel his emotions is that he will become either a person who is out of control because he thinks no one understands him (which they don't), or a person who thinks that emotions are bad and wrong and shouldn't be felt. If Jesus wept and got angry, there is no reason to think that even these 'negative' emotions are intrinsically wrong!

We all need to learn how and when to appropriately express these emotions. The psychologists say that a child whose emotions are validated and who is comforted when troubled will learn to control his emotions appropriately much more quickly than a child who is treated with no sympathy will. (In their book "How We Love", Christian psychologists Milan and Kay Yerkovich write about how the children treated with sympathy and understanding and taught to both 'feel' and 'deal' become the most secure people with an ability to freely give and receive love. This book helped me tremendously to figure out where my own tendencies to bury or discount emotions may have come from).

Again, I'm no expert, I've only had my own experience, some observation, and some reading and intuition, but I would say that, while parents are responsible for training their children and teaching them kind and considerate behavior, they must remember that 1) ultimately, only God can redeem their children from their sinful natures, 2) a child's developmental milestones should be known and considered, and 3) emotions must be validated and not scorned in order for a child to have a healthy emotional life and relationships.


  1. I can't wait to ask you for some baby advice when the time comes. Even though you only have 15 months under your belt you have alot of wisdom!

    1. Hey Angela! I've been thinking of you! We need to get together. I love talking about this stuff :) It would be fun to chat about it before your little one comes, and of course, afterward! (I still think you're having a boy and I feel like I know him after that clear dream I had a few weeks ago...)