Jan 24, 2017

On the Need to See Our Children as Sinners

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

You know that feeling you get when you look at your children’s baby pictures? To become a mom is to experience a whole new world of emotions. Our attachment to our children isn’t just something mental or psychological, either. It is also fostered by our bodies. New research has found evidence that pregnancy changes the gray matter in “brain regions associated with social cognition and theory of mind” and that these changes last for up to two years, presumably helping women to be more attuned to their children. On top of this physical restructuring, childbirth and breastfeeding also help flood women’s bodies with hormones that assist bonding.

Mothers need to care. We moms need to be able to get up night after night to meet the physical or emotional needs of wailing babies. We need to be able to look into the belligerent face of a snotty, whining child and feel love. We need to be willing to sacrifice, serve, defend, and clean. We need to be so changed by motherhood that we can say crazy things like, “What? It’s just baby poop.”

Our God-given ability to nurture can become a significant part of our identities. It can become very important to us to know that we are the person who understands our children. When they are tired, sad, stressed, or angry, we are the person who figures out the root problem and makes things better. And that’s a good thing. Kids need mothering. Yet vital as the role is, sometimes we moms cause a terrible problem by clinging to it too tightly.

In my teaching career, I noticed an odd pattern. There was a certain type of parent--a certain type of mother, usually--whose child displayed a particular, unsettling weakness. These were good kids. Engaging, pleasant, clearly loved and nurtured, clearly accustomed to being on good terms with adults. They weren’t the children who posed obvious behavior problems.

Yet they tended to see rules as kind of . . . gray. It wasn’t that they usually did anything dreadful. The problem was that even when I caught them misbehaving, they were never willing to admit guilt. It had been an accident. Or a (“ha ha, did my hand just grab that off your desk, teacher? Silly me! I thought it was mine!”) mistake. They never seemed to believe that they deserved discipline. They seemed to expect me to compromise with them instead.

When this happened, the mother was eager to defend her child. She understood him. He had explained it. The mother did not believe me. She did not seem to think that the full consequences should really apply to her sweet, good, engaging child.

I have come to believe that these loving mothers had subtly and unknowingly trained their children in deceit. Perhaps even self-deceit. It probably started with the unintended message that rules are never as strict as they sound. You know the scenario. Perhaps the mother said, “If you hit your friend again, you will go to your room for the rest of the playdate,” but when the next hit came, the mother saw a lot of gray in the situation. Or maybe she said, “Don’t touch the rolls on the table,” but when the child ate one, she realized her preschooler was probably very hungry, and it was getting close to bedtime, and after all, it was only a small roll. And so she never taught her child how to deal with being wrong. She never taught him that in real life, breaking the stated rule made him guilty of rule-breaking.

Because this mom wanted to live in emotional harmony with her child, she never really wanted to believe that her child was a sinner. A stinker. A selfish human being. She wanted to be her child’s ally, not the authority who punishes wrongdoing. As her kid got older, she was so eager to understand him that she encouraged him to explain away his actions whenever things went wrong. She wanted him to persuade her that everything was OK.

The pattern that this mother created is unhealthy. It is part of the job of a parent to be able to see their child’s sin. It is part of the role of an adult to be able to simultaneously call someone out on wrong behavior while still loving that person. It is a crucial mark of parenting maturity to be OK with temporary disharmony in our relationship with our children when that is necessary for their own good.  

Mercy is good and necessary, but without real law, there is no real gospel. These mothers actually became an impediment to their children’s ability to confess sin and receive forgiveness. Living in a gray zone is a sad, lonely, and depressing fate. It is a place so upside down and without truth that there, as 1 John 1:8-10 says, God is a liar

As I parent my children, I rejoice in the opportunities to nurture them. I love the hugs and kisses, the snuggles on the couch as we read books, and being the one person who can “kiss away” their ouchies. Yet I know my job encompasses more. I pray that I will be able to take up the cross of active parenthood and help them to recognize their sins. I hope that I will be able to love them even when it makes us both uncomfortable. After all, that’s part of my job. 


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.

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