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Volume 17, Issue 1: Childer


Douglas Wilson

Children need to know who they are, and they need to have it on good authority. One of the worst manifestations of modernist individualism is the idea that "we will let the children decide" what religion they will adhere to when they grow up, or what elementary school they will attend, and so on. Such an approach is fundamentally an assertion that each individual establishes his own identity. And when this route is taken, one of the first casulties is the security of the child—because security is all tied up with identity as a given.

Children need the security of givens.Your family name is a given. Your mother and father are a given. Your sex is a given. Your nationality is a given. Your faith is a given. Your tribe is a given. Your race is a given. When these things are up for grabs, the result is that children hold their identity loosely, or confusedly. When confusion sets in, the result is that everything is up in the air. A pathological example of this would be seen in someone like Michael Jackson, who does not appear to accept any givens. But our name, sex, race, family, nationality, and religion are like the concrete slab under the house, or like the floor joists. They are not furniture, to be periodically rearranged when the whim hits.
Far from squelching individuality, this kind of fixedness is the bedrock of it. Getting the givens close to the bone is one of the most important tasks in bringing up children. If a little girl is sitting on her father's lap watching a football game, and she turns to him and asks, "Who are we for?" he should simply tell her. "We are going for the Seahawks." This is just one additional blessing for her—it helps her to understand who she is, who her people are, and how they understand themselves.
But what if he says, "Well, honey, when you grow up and marry, your husband may take you to live in another franchise market, and so I could not presume to tell you. I want to leave your options open"? If he does this, the result is that he is refusing to give to her something that she needs very much. The example is a trivial one, but it illustrates a broader pattern.
Parents, of necessity, impose a whole host of things on their children. The only question is whether or not the impositions will be done selfishly or selflessly. If a man starts doing football drills with his three-year-old because he was cut from the team in high school, then the chances are good that he is selfishly trying to live through his son vicariously. But if he does the same thing because "that's what's my daddy did with me, and my granddaddy did with him," then the time is a blessed one of establishing identity. Parents teach what they know, which means the options are limited. This is not a problem; it is a design feature.
The choice is not between "imposing selfishly" and "not imposing." The action of "not imposing" is actually our contemporary way of imposing confusion and insecurity. The true choice is between "imposing selfishly" and "imposing unselfishly."
The word impose may make some think that parents are to rule their children with a mailed fist, making them all into cookie cutter offspring. But this is not the point at all. Every family culture has a set of givens, and God sees to it that each child born into the home arrives with a set of his or her own givens. A child born into a non-musical family may have enormous musical talent. A kid born into a bookish family may be a real athlete. The complicated interaction of these givens is to be done in love, but the central point being made here is that the child's givens are not an absolute. They are not a shrine at which all dutiful parents must worship. The fundamental adaptation is of the child to the family, and not the other way around.
Vocation used to be far more of a familial given than it is now. We see this in many of our last names—Miller, Cooper, Smith, Tanner, and so on. But just because the economy of the modern world has made it comparatively rare that a great-grandson will be doing the same thing his great-grandfather did, and in the same shop, does not mean that we should therefore abandon all the other family ties that remain. This is especially true of our faith.
The central question of identity is the child's identity in Christ. If the parents are in Christ, then the child is holy (1 Cor. 7:14). This means that a child should be taught, from his earliest moments, that "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." He should not be taught that "your mother and I serve the Lord, and we hope that one day you too will join us." Children should be brought up in such a way as to think of departing from the faith as a species of squaring the circle. They should not even know how to get their minds around it. But too often, Christian parents teach their children to think that the unthinkable is in fact an option. The fact that we called apostasy a regrettable option does not erase the central lesson learned, that it was in fact an option at all. And so we bring up children who have no certain religious identity, and are certain of no religion.

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