That’s a scary question. Part of the sting of the question is the answer. Most parents, some polls suggest 2 of every 3, think their children are spoiled. However, I believe the question has a second stinger that hurts even worse. The question, and our children, serve as a mirror suggesting that it isn’t just our children who are spoiled, we are too. Far too often, spoiled children are simply reflections of the spoiled culture they are living in.
If you aren’t convinced that your children are spoiled, or that you are spoiled, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent article, “Spoiled Rotten.” Kolbert compares American children to children living in the Amazon jungle in a little village known as Matsigenka, Peru. As you might expect, we come out looking as spoiled as 3 month old milk.
Consider how Kolbert compares the two cultures:
…the Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. Toddlers routinely heat their own food over an open fire, they observed, while “three-year-olds frequently practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives.” Boys, when they are six or seven, start to accompany their fathers on fishing and hunting trips, and girls learn to help their mothers with the cooking. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood.
The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite direction. So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them (which leaves them more time for video games).
Our first response is to suggest that this is a ridiculous standard. What parent in their right mind wants their three year old playing with machetes? Yet, if we are honest, we must admit that Kolbert has a point. Americans seem to be expecting less and less of our children, and, generally speaking, our children are living up to these continually diminishing standards.
So what exactly are we doing to spoil our children? According to Kolbert, it is little things like tying their shoes. She provides the following story as an example.
… a boy named Ben was supposed to leave the house with his parents. But he couldn’t get his feet into his sneakers, because the laces were tied. He handed one of the shoes to his father: “Untie it!” His father suggested that he ask nicely.
“Can you untie it?” Ben replied. After more back-and-forth, his father untied Ben’s sneakers. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. “You tie your shoes and let’s go,’’ his father finally exploded. Ben was unfazed. “I’m just asking,’’ he said.
The problem, as Kolbert points out, is not so much that Ben is being rude (though that deserves addressing as well), but that he is learning to depend more on his parents rather than learning to become independent. She hints toward a solution saying,
The notion that we may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes has given rise to a new genre of parenting books. Their titles tend to be either dolorous (“The Price of Privilege”) or downright hostile (“The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Mean Moms Rule,” “A Nation of Wimps”). The books are less how-to guides than how-not-to’s: how not to give in to your toddler, how not to intervene whenever your teenager looks bored, how not to spend two hundred thousand dollars on tuition only to find your twenty-something graduate back at home, drinking all your beer.
But what does any of this have to do with being spiritually mature? Does the Bible consider independence as a sign of spiritual maturity? The answer is yes and no.
We should remember that the gospel is the story of how we lose our independence – or at least gain a new kind of dependence. Consider Ephesians 2:11-22
Remember that you were at that time seperated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise. Having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 20)
Christianity is in many ways a worldview based on dependence. We are far off from God and must depend on His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring us back into the fold. And then, once we are brought near, we do not become an island unto ourselves, but we become members of a household that we depend on, and that depends on us. In this sense, the Christian parent is not shooting for independence.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the type of independence that Kolbert has in mind. The six year old in Matsigenka isn’t training to leave the tribe, but to become a productive, contributing member of the tribe. She needs to be able to work effectively and independently as a member of the community, or the whole community suffers.
This appears to be the same mindset that Paul is urging Timothy to share in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in rightousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
Paul is obviously not suggesting that Timothy become an island, independent of any influence. Quite the contrary he is calling Timothy to build on the influence he has already received. Yet, the goal before Timothy is to develop into maturity, to become a man who is competent and equipped for every good work. While Timothy looks back on foundation laid by his mother and grandmother, he no longer needs their urging to do every good work. His maturity is evidenced by his compentence and ability to do every good work independent of their continued prodding. As Kolbert points out, a wise parent will begin developing this kind of maturity, or independence, as early as possible.
Most Christian parents want their children to be spiritually mature. They want their children to know the Bible and to love Jesus. They want their children to be competent and equipped for every good work. The question that remains is how to acheive this. While every child is different, I believe that the same things that prevent responsibility in the rest of our lives are preventing maturity in our spiritual lives. That is, we coddle our children, keeping the bar low enough that they are never in danger of not reaching it.
Gone are the days when children are expected to work through a catechism. In his recent biography, Paul Gutjahr explains that Charles Hodge (a famous Princeton theologian) had memorized all 107 of the questions and answers in the Westminster Catechism by the age of 12, but downplays this impressive feat as standard for all children in the early 19th century. Today you will be hard pressed to find a child under 12 who even knows what a catechism is. To expect a young child to memorize a work of this size sounds almost Matsigenkan.
If we want our children to become spiritually mature, we have to raise our expectations. We have to expect them to be spiritually mature. And just like teaching a child to tie his shoes, or ride a bike, its going to require making them do the work.
If your not quite ready to start memorizing the Westminster Catechism, but you want to start making your kids “do the work,” here are four of ideas to help you get started.
- Ask your kids how individual Bible stories fit in the whole story of the Bible. If you have young children, buy the Big Picture Story Bible and start reading it to them today. As you read the stories to them, expect them to start putting the pieces together. Ask them how the story of Adam and Eve prepares us for Jesus. Ask them why God would include the story of Samson in the Bible.
- Help your kids answer their own questions. Children have a natural curiosity and ask tons of questions about God, heaven, hell, good, bad, and all sorts of other things in the Bible. Rather than immediately answering their questions, expect them find the answer in the Bible for themselves. If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish…
- Ask them to prove the point from the Bible. In Acts 17, Luke praises the Bereans for being more noble minded than others. When they heard Paul’s sermons they went home and examined the Scriptures to see if what he was saying was true. Expect your children to be noble-minded. Ask them to examine the pastor’s sermons, their teacher’s lectures, and their own ideas against the Scriptures. Its not enough to simply say the right things, help them become competent to explain why it is true.
- Memorize Bible verses with your children. Children have crazy good memories. My mom can still recite the entire nativity story from Luke 2 because she memorized it as a child with her family. Don’t waste this opportunity because a good memory doesn’t last forever. Expect your children to memorize sections of the Bible. But be careful, your kids won’t think its important if you don’t memorize Bible verses too.