Babies and Morality, Part One

two babies(Lydia with her little cousin)

A while back, I linked to a documentary called Babies: Born to be Good?

The discussion that followed in the comments was marvelous and interesting.

I don’t think many people were able to see the video, though, on account of it being rather long and only available in Canada. So most people responded with their own thoughts, based on their readings of Scripture and other religious texts. It had almost nothing to do with the documentary.

Well guess what? I came across a different video that talks about many of the same studies. It’s much shorter – only 13 minutes – and available in any country. Watch it, watch it! (The show is called 60 Minutes, which is confusing, because it is actually only 13 minutes. Oh, television. Also, I wasn’t able to embed it, so you’ll have to click over to watch it.)

So I wanted talk about the documentary a bit and offer my reflections; and then, in another post, think about about how it relates to what Scripture says about children and morality, since that was the big topic in the last discussion.

Babies: Born to be Good? The Studies

Both videos explored numerous recent psychology experiments conducted all over the world regarding the development of morality in babies and children. The results were fascinating: infants as young as three months old showed signs of a moral impulse.

In the most intriguing (to me) experiment, the researcher puts on a short puppet show for the baby. In the show, the baby sees three puppets interacting – a penguin, a “mean” otter who takes away the penguin’s ball, and a “nice” otter who shares.

(A variation of the same experiment is featured in both videos.)

After the performance, the researcher offers the baby a choice between the two otters.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the baby reaches for (or looks at, in the case of the three-month-old) the “nice” otter. In short, he shows an immediate preference for the “good guy,” before he can really have learned about good and evil from his parents.

This was true of every age group they tested, from three to nine months.

Other experiments revealed that young children also have instincts to be helpful and to share. Without being prompted, toddlers will help an adult (a stranger) get something he can’t reach. Very young children will offer to share all of their toys with a teddy bear who has no toys, even though another teddy bear clearly has plenty to spare.

These experiments – and others — show that young humans have a natural impulse to be cooperative. We have inborn tendencies to be empathetic. We instinctively seek justice and fairness.

These tendencies aren’t learned: they are instinctive.

All of these experiments cast doubt upon the widely-held – and widely-taught – belief among many evangelical Christians (and others) that children are naturally inclined to rebellion, chaos, and selfishness.

Of course, the documentary didn’t only offer evidence that children are inclined to good. For example, it also showed some interesting experiments that demonstrated our natural preference for people like ourselves.

In other words, it showed us that we have instinctive tendencies towards prejudice and racism.

And it doesn’t take too long before a child is capable of lying (between 2 and 3 years old, typically). A child’s first lies, it turns out, are generally told in order to get out of trouble.

But I was overwhelmed by the evidence that children are, by nature, given to cooperation, kindness, and empathy.

The seeds of goodness are within us at birth.

This excites and interests me for a number of reasons.

These findings resonate with what I already intuitively believed: that babies have an inborn wisdom that we would do well to heed.

If this is true, it must influence the way we respond to children.

For example: when they tell us they need something – food, cuddles, company – they’re telling the truth. They aren’t being manipulative: they aren’t even capable of dishonesty until well after their second birthday. They know something we don’t about how they feel and what they need. We ought to respect them when they claim to need something.

When they refuse to listen or obey, maybe our demands really are unreasonable. (Maybe not; but it’s worth considering.) It’s important to listen.

And in all things, babies and children deserve respect. They deserve to be listened to. They understand more than we realize. They’re learning about compassion and cooperation right from the start, and internalizing the way we treat them and each other. We need to show them how humans treat each other respectfully by demonstrating it right from birth.

Babies are not born perfect, and obviously need guidance and correction; but the seeds of goodness are already there. We just need to nurture them.

At the same time, of course, we need to help children overcome their natural tendency to prefer those who are like them and to fear or disdain people who are different. But there is already an impulse to prefer kindness, too.

* * *

However: does all of this contradict what we learn about human nature in the Bible?

In my next post, I would like to think about how these truths interact with the truth we find in Scripture.

Any thoughts?

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  1. Of course babies and people are born with tendencies to do good. We are made in God’s image. But we are still born sinners. And the world will try and contradict what the Bible says, anyway they can. The Bible does not say anywhere that we are born “evil” in the sense that we hate everything good, and are out to do horrible things. It just means that we are born sinners, in the sense of needing a Saviour. And that we cannot do it on our own. The world is trying to disprove things the Bible doesn’t say.

    • I actually found the documentary to be surprisingly consistent with what the Bible teaches. I plan to explore that more in my next post, but the researchers emphasize that both good and evil tendencies are present in infants. As far as I can see, this is consistent with the idea that we are made in God’s image but marred by sin.

      My wording may have been misleading, but neither video claims that the scientists are disproving what the Bible says.

      I also don’t think they contradict the need for a Saviour. They do, on the other hand, cast doubt upon the idea that children need their parents to form them into good people. Many Christian parenting manuals suggest that because children are naturally rebellious and born without any virtues whatsoever, it’s the parents’ job to instill these virtues in their children. I think the research suggests otherwise.

      (Just an example: Gary Ezzo, in Becoming Babywise, writes of the importance of such values as “kindness, goodness, gentleness, charity, honesty, honor, and respect for others” for living a successful life. “However,” he writes, “acquisition of these traits is not a goal best left to chance. Parents must train these attributes into the heart of their child” (p. 24). He argues that “these virtues are not inherent in . . . any new life,” and therefore, the child’s parents must “govern and monitor” the child until she exhibits enough self-control to merit freedom.

      These researchers, by contrast, suggest that humans DO indeed possess the beginnings of kindness, honesty, etc within them. So maybe it’s not the parents’ job to “train these attributes into the heart of their child.”)

      You’re right — the Bible doesn’t teach that “we are born ‘evil’ in the sense that we hate everything good, and are out to do horrible things.” But many Christian parenting experts seem to imply that.

  2. I don’t find that at all: in studying Gary Ezzo, James Dobson and a couple others, they just echo what the Bible says. We must train a child in the way they should go, and when they are older, they will not depart from it. If left to themselves, I believe that some babies may exhibit “good” characteristics, but that does not make it a part of the child’s personality, or mean that they will act with the gifts of the Spirit later. Heck, being good sure doesn’t get you into heaven!

    This to me does refute the Bible, because it teaches that individuals have the ability to be good on their own, that they don’t need parents as the Bible teaches. I can’t see God creating a family structure, and giving lots of mandates for parents (and especially fathers), if , left to their own devices, they could make themselves into “good people.” Now, if you cancel out the role of mother and father, it is not a small leap to cancel out the idea as God as Father. You pretty much cancel out any need for guidance, period. It is the small slips, and the little doctrinal changes that start out “okay” and will eventually make everyone believe that they know what is best for themselves, what is right for them in each situation . . . this completely gets rid of the absolutes, and the need for God.

    They need us to model that, tell them, show them, train them. The world will teach them that they have it all within themselves, that they know what’s best, that they are born with knowledge of good and evil. We MUST respect our children. We MUST listen to them. I have never read anything that says different from Ezzo, etc, but I might have been reading it with a different paradigm or mindset than you have. Above all, all those books are written by sinners, for sinners, and we must obey the Bible, and no one else. It says to train them. That cannot be refuted.

  3. While I’m guessing we’ll boil a lot of this down to the Catholic/Protestant ideas of the nature of the human condition like we did in the last post – the whole idea of whether or not we’re good with bad bits or bad with the chance to develop good bits (to put it very simply). I think it’s interesting to point out that these experiements show (while the “morality” of the choices is up for debate) that many children, if not all, do have some innate desire or inclination towards what can be perceived as good and it is this point that I feel is at odds with many of the “christian parenting experts” say – that a child left to his or her own devices will always choose what is bad or evil.

    I doubt many would question what our roles as parents, educators, mentors, etc. should be – to guide a child to develop a moral compass to guide them towards what is right and good, but the key difference is what we believe we have to start with.

    For example – my not quite two-year old is going through a phase of hitting. It’s not out of a desire to hurt or disobey – rather he seems to think he’s just having fun and doesn’t realize the consequences. I could look at this action from a point of view that he is acting out his evil nature and start to punish him for his wicked ways – perhaps even by hitting him myself or I could approach it with the idea that his actions and his motives are not one and the same. He does not know yet that hitting causes another person pain and therefore has no way to catalog his behavior as anything other than a possible way to express his happiness or playfulness. Instead of approaching this phase with the mentality of punishing a (very) young child for choosing “evil” I can rather approach it with the mindset of “training” him of the appropriate ways to express himself so that he will have more tools to work with as he gets old and needs to control these urges when he does have a larger grasp of what’s “right” and “wrong”.

    As a parting I thought I’d just add that the idea of having a natural inclinations towards good does not, necessarily, mean we believe that “left to our own devices” we will attain perfect union with God, but rather that from the moment of our birth (and perhaps conception) we naturally desire a relationship with God. To me this is union with biblical teachings – particularly the story of the garden of Eden – that we start with an innate desire to be one with God and the sin in the world gets in the way because of our Free Will, rather than starting in the world as Evil creatures whom God must seek out and turn from our naughty ways.
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  4. Kaitlin Pritpal Kaur Drury says

    Young, young infants responded liking kindness better than meanness. Apparently, this lessened as babies grew. IF the Judeo/Christian/Muslim god is what he is purported to be, he made us this way: that god’s not so perfect after all, is he? He’s supposed to be omnipotent. Oh well. He’s mean. Very glad to: have been raised to love goodness rather than to fear god, to be part of a movement against all domestic violence including physical and mental meanness towards children.

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