How We Speak and Think About Children Matters

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CC image courtesy of Flickr, William Cho.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, William Cho.

“Christ already has unambivalently welcomed children. If the church and world want to welcome Christ and the God who sent him, then the church and the world had best figure out how to welcome children.”

~ Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children, p. 111

One lesson I learned while attending a summer Christian worldview camp in high school is that ideas matter. I remember John Stonestreet emphasizing this lesson one muggy afternoon at Summit Ministries in Dayton, Tennessee. Ideas matter because ideas lead to actions that can change the world — that was Stonestreet’s message. He continues to preach this message to this day. In a 2012 YouTube video Stonestreet says, “What really changes the world and shapes human history? Ideas.” He adds, “Here’s what you need to know about all ideas: They have consequences.”

I agree with Stonestreet about the power of ideas. That’s why I think it’s important that homeschooling parents, communities, and leaders consider how we speak and think about children. How we speak and think about children matters because there are consequences to that speech and thought.

In the conservative evangelical homeschool world that I grew up in and John Stonestreet continues to preach to, there is one particularly dominant and pervasive belief about children: they must be “trained up” or “controlled” as if they are animals. This belief is spread by popular child training experts through homeschool convention circuits, curriculum and magazine vendors, and word of mouth.

These individuals speak of and think about children in terms of either entities that need to be controlled (like criminals or even serial killers) or animals that need to be controlled (or both). The animals they use to describe children are usually dangerous or rabid sorts of animals: for example, poisonous vipers or wild dogs.

What is notable about these experts and their language surrounding children is the absence of such language in the words of Jesus (as well as the rest of the Bible). In fact, in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 9-10), Jesus not only welcomes children enthusiastically and lovingly, he places them in the center of his focus and ministry and says to become like them. This places the language used by many homeschool leaders in sharp relief: imagine if Jesus took a viper and placed it in the center of a bunch of people and said to become like that venomous creature! If Jesus thought of children as vipers, like many homeschool leaders do, he wouldn’t have used the language he did and he wouldn’t have acted how he did around children.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why are the ideas about children that we encounter in the homeschooling movement that proclaims Jesus as Lord so different from (and even opposed to) the ideas about children that we encounter in Jesus?

Shouldn’t that difference concern us?

It should, and not simply because our ideas are so opposed to Jesus’s. That difference should concern us because, as Stonestreet once taught me, that difference of ideas has consequences. Consider how these leaders speak and think about children, even infants:

• “like a criminal”

• “horribly polluted”

• “desiring to kill their parents”

• “desperately needing to be hit”

• “vipers in diapers”

• “like a serial killer”

These are the ideas homeschooling parents hear from leaders they look up to. And when parents are repeatedly encouraged to think of their children as venomous snakes, parent-hating murderers, and mind-polluted serial killers, that’s going to have real-life impacts on parents, children, and their relationships. Specifically, it encourages contempt towards children — even fear of children. It can even drive a relational wedge between parent and child. Because all these words are contemptuous words. They are not words that stir up empathy or sympathy for the unique struggles of infants and children. They are not words that help bring parent and child together. They are not words that encourage parents or give them hope in their parenting journey.

This isn’t simply an abstract concern. The fact is, encouraging contempt towards children increasing the risk of child abuse. This is due to the statistical likelihood of child abuse occurring in homes where parents view their children with contempt. In my paper earlier this year on one child training expert’s theology of children, I explained this phenomenon:

A 2009 New Zealand study by the Ministry of Social Development found a correlation between people’s attitudes about children and how those people treat children. The study found that people who view children as “innately bad” are more likely to support physically hitting children. This is because those people saw children as being “born with a sinful (rebellious) nature” and thus “one of the duties of the parent is to curb rebellious expressions by the child.” These same people were okay with “treatment that is less respectful than that which is available to adults.”

Similarly, a 2009 study in the United States found that parents who have a higher risk of physically abusing their children are more likely to be people who have difficulty interpreting the ambiguous behavior of a child (like an infant crying) in positive terms. The study discovered that, “While both low and high CPA [child physical abuse] risk parents appear to be equally likely to encode ambiguous behaviors (e.g., infant’s crying) in negative terms (e.g., difficult, uncooperative); low risk parents appear to have a somewhat greater capacity to also encode such behaviors in positive terms (e.g., sweet, loving).” What makes a difference in situations that could escalate into the physical abuse of a child is a “greater capacity to encode ambiguous or challenging moments in parenting in positive terms” That capacity “may buffer against pervasively negative interpretations and attributions and thus protect against angry or aggressive reactions.”

These results — and others like them — have been replicated numerous times. The implications are clear: if you view your child negatively, you are more likely to get negative results. “Parents high in [child physical abuse] risk,” for example, were found to be “especially likely to rate children displaying neutral emotional expressions as hostile and difficult.” Thus, “problems can…arise when parents engage in maladaptive thinking. Mothers at a higher risk of child abuse, for example, are more likely to attribute negative traits to children who demonstrate ambiguous behaviour, and see this behaviour as intentional.”

Many popular child training teachers are encouraging parents to do exactly this: to view emotional expressions of their children as hostile, even evil; to attribute negative traits to their children; to see children’s behavior as intentionally sinful; and to be less empathetic towards children. This is a direct recipe for increasing the risk of abuse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way. The Christian homeschooling movement is “Christian” because it claims to follow Jesus Christ. And Jesus showed nothing but love and respect for children. Jesus centers children, takes children into his arms, and blesses children. To Jesus, children are bearers of God’s image (Mark 9:37), owners of the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16, Matthew 19:14), the greatest in that Kingdom (Matthew 18:2-3), and proclaimers of God’s glory (Matthew 24:16).

The one animal that Jesus does compare children to is a lamb that wanders away from 99 other sheep. And Jesus makes clear that he, like a shepherd, will not rest until that one lamb is safe and sound (Matthew 18:10-14).

A Christian worldview about children should be similarly dedicated to children’s health and safety. It should lift up children as inherently valuable, deserving of our love, and worthy of our protection.

A Christian worldview about children should call us to do better by the children gifted to be in our care. It should exhort us to greater efforts to protect those children from abuse and neglect. And it should inspire us to “clean up house” and promote homeschool leaders and speakers who model Christlike ideas regarding children, rather than promote those who teach contempt for children.

John Stonestreet was right when he said, “What really changes the world and shapes human history? Ideas.” There’s a reason why Jesus’s love and valuing of children changed history: because how we speak and think about children matters. We would do well to remember that today.

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.