A recent uproar happened on Twitter when a Reformed thinker declared that we should be making it clear to our children that they are broken, terribly terribly broken (although I’m paraphrasing, there was a repeated emphasis similar to this). It brings up two questions: what is a biblically accurate view of humanity? And what is good to be telling our children (not always the same thing)?
I’ll take the second question first since it is easier and more unanimous amongst anybody who knows anything about the topic. You should not tell your children, ever, that they are terribly terribly broken. It doesn’t mean you tell them they’re perfect, and I suspect the tweet was in response to helicopter parenting which tries to keep all suffering and criticism out of their child’s life. If that was the case, he probably had a point and just conveyed it in a brutally unhelpful and wrong way. Yes, help your children realize that they will suffer in the world and that they will cause suffering through their own mistakes, but telling them that they are inherently broken is never going to help any child, leading them only to depression or other mental health issues. There are millions of these stories all over the world where a child is made to feel that they are not and never can be good enough. Here’s a rule I picked up at camp: make at least 90% of your feedback to children positive. If you need to, actually monitor what you say to keep track, because if you focus on the negative, they will too. The same is true for adults, of course, except that we might be a bit more battle-hardened and already accept that we will never be good enough.Ok, so onto the theology part. Reformed theology holds to the concept of “total depravity.” This states that human beings by default can do absolutely nothing right on our own. We are completely incapable of anything that is not sinful. Not entirely sure what biblical evidence they have for this – there’s nothing I’ve found even remotely convincing but I know they summon up something – and it definitely was not in church teaching before Augustine and was not in any official accepted teaching until the Reformation, but there it is. You suck and you won’t ever do anything right. Some argue that since they think this is true, you should ignore what everyone else agrees is loving to your children and make sure they know that they also suck and are incapable of ever doing anything right. Small-t truth – which in this case is a minority view of Christians – trumps love for this select group (not nearly all who hold to total depravity, to be clear) even though that Scripture is constantly clear that love is the basis and summation of a Christian ethic.
On the other extreme, of course, we have some progressive Christians – and a lot of Western culture in general – who want to say that everything is ok. They don’t like pointing out anything that is wrong with the world, other than perhaps exclusivity and other ways that the powerful use their power to hurt the weak. I do think they have a point, seeing as this was the only group that Jesus ever really criticized. I also think Christians have a greater responsibility to each other, though, which does include calling each other out when within a loving relationship – not non-Christians, not people you don’t know, but people who have invited you to serve that function in their lives. So I don’t want to run to the framework of “everything is perfect” either.
Furthermore, both are still operating on the same judgement framework. The former finds you excessively guilty and ignores anything you do well. The latter finds you innocent on your own merit and ignores anything you do wrong. A better approach, and I think a more biblical approach, is one with grace at the centre. Everybody is first and foremost made in the image of God and loved so much by God that he died for us. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but that just makes the love even more radical because it shows that it is not conditional on doing things right. This is what we need to model to our children, not that they are terrible and will never do anything right, and not that they are perfect, but that they are deeply and unconditionally loved even when they do make mistakes.