I utter this phrase multiple times a day. Indy is our cat. Indy does not like boundaries. Indy needs boundaries (and continual reinforcement of them), so he can interact with our environment in healthy ways.
I have seen households where cats are not given strong, reinforced boundaries, and I’ve seen households where cats who previously had boundaries had those boundaries relaxed, and I’ve seen cats in the latter regress in behavior back to a selfish baseline that existed pre-discipline. A chair in our living room bears battle scars from the training process for our Indy.
I reinforced Indy’s boundaries this morning as he tried to drink the water I had just given to our basil plant. Today, I did not feel the need to give a more strong quick reminder through a bump on his nose or a stinging of his backside. He got the message right away today, and his look of guilt showed me he knew what he was doing. Other days, after a verbal rebuke, he gets an insolent “I’m going to do whatever I want right now look” and proceeds to not care what we say. He cares pretty quickly when the left hand of justice reaches for the spray bottle of water or reaches out to spank.
Today, like other days recently, my thoughts shifted to reflecting parenting afterwards (a wife 14 weeks pregnant with an already proportional little human being inside will do that to you). I quickly recalled my knowledge of children, which is fairly extensive, and a reminder that you don’t have to be a parent to have a deep enough experience with children to have something to say about their capacity to know and understand right and wrong, self-giving and selfishness.
You see, children (and adults too) are more like our dear little Indy than we would like to confess. We like to think human beings are a higher order being than other animals, that we have a greater natural capacity to know what is good and to choose it. For a well-trained child or adult, this is certainly true, being made in the image of God and all. But a child who has not received rigorous, intentional, loving discipline is nearly exactly like our cat. They don’t know what is healthy or unhealthy, they need to be reminded that “Dirt water is not sanitary, and the water is intended for the basil and not for you, thankyouverymuch.”
Children without boundaries strongly reinforced look like the vast majority of people in our culture; drifting aimlessly through life, driven primarily by their own desires and curiosity; which upon very basic reflection are driven in large part by selfishness.
I’d like to spend a little time below showing how my perspective is shaped by my Christian commitment because I think it is of vital, central importance to understanding human beings and specifically children.
Scripturally, we are told that humans are created by God, in God’s image, and therefore because our Creator is so innovative and compassionate and intentional, we have a built-in capacity to know what is good and eventually to run towards it. This is our created identity, which we should identify as an identity built into humanity a long, long time ago.
Humanity since our creation has displayed, however, a history of desire, of innovation, of creative capacity gone amuck. We have taken the powerful created identity given to us and twisted it to serve our purposes, which are bent toward selfishness. As a result, generation after generation after generation for millenia have built human societies, religions, and perspectives of the world that have enshrined greed, selfishness, and self-determination as virtues to be pursued, not vices to be avoided. Geneticists tell us that our genetic heritage as people is, yes, relatively stable, but also yes, deeply impacted by environmental conditions and social pressures. The most cutting edge geneticists today suggest that the impact of the surrounding environment on the human organism are deep enough that they penetrate even into the building blocks of our genetic code. To reinforce, our environment doesn’t just affect how different parts of our genetic code express themselves, our environment changes our genetic code. This happens normally over multiple generations, yes, but this does not make this reality any less real or meaningful. This research is interesting because it reveals a significant parallel between genetics and Scriptural teaching. Practically, the upshot is the following. The Scriptures teach of a great rebellion of humanity against our Creator. This great rebellion has been so deeply embodied and pursued that the “natural” state of humanity is now rebellious, dark, and selfish. The Apostle Paul put it like this in the letter to the Romans,
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
– Romans 1:21, 28-32
Do you follow the contours of Paul’s thought? We knew God, but we forsook God’s wisdom and knowledge about us, so our thinking became futile and our foolish hearts were darkened. We have become filled with every kind of wickedness. We are full of envy. Although we may have some awareness that we’re functioning in unhealthy ways, we not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. What is implied in every stage of Paul’s thought here is a process.
A number of theologians have paired this Romans passage with the beginning of Genesis to describe what they see as a “fall,” to show the story of Adam and Eve as some irreparable break that made humans immediately disgusting in the eyes of God. Beyond the fact that this interpretation denies that the creation story is a poem (not rigorous human history about an actual event) it also is a refusal to let the story speak for itself. Theologians, because of the beliefs they bring to the story, twist the meaning of the story to fit their understanding rather than letting it speak to them on its own. The story is one of rebellion, yes, but it is also one revealing God’s compassion, and humanity’s ability to choose the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again) over our own ideas and pathways.
When one accepts the above interpretation of the story of creation, the Scriptures explode with life in ways we had not had eyes to see before. We find horrific and beautiful repetition on these themes of rebellion, God’s compassion and discipline, and choosing the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again). The Scriptures are not about the futility of human beings and our inability to be holy, primarily; but instead are about the rebellion of human beings and the lack of desire to be holy. This lack of desire is heavily affected by generational rebellion, by a long line of ancestors who valued their way more than their Creator. This is why God reminded the Israelites in Deuteronomy
“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children…Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”
-Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 39-40
Do you hear the words I bolded above? Be careful, do not forget, teach, remember, learn to revere, teach, acknowledge, take to heart, keep. Why? So that it may go well with you and your children. The exhortation here in Deuteronomy is an acknowledgment of the darkness, the rebellion, inherited confusion of the people. But the exhortation does not, does not say “You are unable to change, and must only cry out for forgiveness and God will forgive.” The writer of Deuteronomy does not settle for that lesser, sad perspective that Martin Luther proclaimed as gospel. No, the writer(s) choose to call the people out of their inherited habits into a new way of inherited habits that are intended, generation by generation, to bear witness in thought, word, and deed to a different way of being in the world. The Israelites are to live this way “so that it may go well with you and your children” in way that calls all who observe back to what they were created for.
So, the Scriptures talk about created identity (1). The Scriptures talk about choices to deny and twist that identity (2). The Scriptures show the generational quality of those choices (2a), where people become darker, become filled with wickedness, become envious. And the Scriptures show a God who continually calls people out of that darkness(3), to embody practices and habits that lead them back into the light (3a), to become filled with goodness, to become self-giving, to choose to kneel before God to listen and obey.
So, geneticists and the Scriptural community agree; we are who we are most significantly because of a pattern of living that we have inherited from our ancestors from our present parents all the way back into primordial history. What we desire is “borrowed” from those who shape us. In other words, there isn’t a single thing we desire on our own. What is most natural to me is that way because of the culture surrounding me. And if I discover that what has seemed to be natural (violence and sexuality are two central things that come to mind) is in fact unnatural, I must commit myself and my children (and if my children follow, their children and children’s children) to the pursuit of what is natural. Along the way, we affirm that some of those desires will not feel natural until multiple generations have pursued the life given by the authority of God.
All of the extended thoughts above have been a prolonged riff in support of the same theme I stated above: our children (and our cats) don’t know what is good and right to do and be by themselves. Our children need boundaries, they need the strong word of their mentors and parents, and they need further reminders beyond words from time to time that shock them out of their complacency and worldview to consider another (i.e. spanking, and other essential tools). The more I think on this subject as we steadily march toward parenthood, the more the need to have a solid commitment to all of what I have said above is revealed. However the intricacies of parenting work out (because every child is, in important ways, unique), I must remember, I must remember, I must remember to “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”
Teacher, author, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas understands the importance of tradition, habit, and strong communal remembering in a powerful way. It shows up over and over again in his thoughts. A story of Stan’s interactions with a couple seems most fitting to conclude,
Stan was walking across the Quad at Notre Dame one morning when he spotted some friends, a married couple, both Jewish, walking nearby and joined them. Knowing that they had a son about to be of age he asked, “When is the Bar Mitzvah?” The couple replied, “Well, we are not sure. We want Jacob to decide for himself that he wants to be Bar Mitzvah’d. He hasn’t decided yet.” Stan retorted,“So, there have been 5750 years of Jewish history, Jewish suffering, so that this twelve year-old can make up his mind? Could he have a mind worth making up if he does not know his parents stand for something?”
Amen brother. May we stand for something, and shape the desire of our children toward their Creator. Along the way, may our children shape our desire toward our Creator. When we practice this shaping together, we bear witness of a way of life worth living, a life patterned toward our ultimate joy and fulfillment. May it be so.