Babies: Born to be Good?

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a fascinating documentary about moral development in children, entitled Babies: Born to be Good?

(That link says the video is only available in full in Canada. I’m not sure if American viewers might have more luck with this one. If not . . . well, there’s a preview available, as well as a short recap).

The documentary is about 45 minutes long, so if you don’t have that kind of time right now but are interested in the subject, I highly recommend you set aside some time to view it. It’s very accessible and engrossing, yet packed with interesting science.

(It’s hosted by David Suzuki, whom I know a lot of conservative Christians don’t like because he teaches kids evolution. But I hope that won’t immediately put off any Christian readers. There’s a little bit of evolution-talk, but most of it is normal psychology).

In the video, we see babies as young as three months old showing a preference for puppets who act kindly rather than selfishly. We see toddlers volunteering to help strangers pick up items they can’t reach, and willingly sharing all their toys. We see eight-year-olds sacrificing their own Skittles to ensure that others get their fair share. (Granted, we also see a five-year-old laughing victoriously when he gets more Skittles than his partner. Children aren’t purely filled with goodness).

I find this subject particularly interesting in light of the way conservative Evangelical Christians have historically understood children as naturally evil and rebellious. This view of children has, naturally, influenced the way Christians parent, and are advised to parent — with the assumption that children need to be taught goodness by parents.

(I’ve written a bit on the subject already).

I’ve been mulling over these issues quite a bit since I watched it (and, frankly, for the last year or two). Sadly, I haven’t gotten a chance to write them out yet. I’m currently in the middle of making tortillas, bread, yogurt and ice cream (Lydia is napping at the moment, so I pounced on the computer to pound out this short note).

So I’d love to hear some of your immediate reflections if you get a chance to watch it. What do you think?

(Update: more thoughts on the documentary here).

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. I didn’t watch it (I’m also snatching a few minutes online during naptime), but it reminded me of a book I have about Catholic parenting from an AP approach (Parenting with Grace by the Popcaks). They also make the case that while much evangelical Protestant parenting advice is about breaking the will [apparently Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson even said “that even though they are cute and lovable, “infants are inherently evil.””], that’s not what we as Catholics believe about humanity. They explained that “For the Catholic, the will must be taught, disciplined, and channeled, but never disparaged or broken. Catholic parents must be careful to use their authority in a manner that is “in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”” Now obviously not all Catholics realize this or they wouldn’t need to write a book about these things ;) But I thought it was really interesting, and obviously it’s not just a Catholic or even Christian thing.

    This very morning was the first time in her 22 months of life that my daughter didn’t share something with me when I asked. I wasn’t really alarmed, because she thought it was a joke rather than being selfish, but I thought of it when I was reading your examples above. She seems pretty darn good to this biased mom :)
    That Married Couple recently posted..Yup, it’s an announcementMy Profile

    • This just reminds me of when I discovered that the Montessori Teaching method was created to play in part with Catholic social teaching (Maria M. was a Catholic) with the idea that children, from a very young age, are completely people who deserve the respect and opportunities normally (at least back then) given to older adults.
      Molly Makes do recently posted..The Hallow TimesMy Profile

    • I’m sorry, I had to respond again. Dr. Dobson says, and I quote, ” . . . not simply to shape the will, but to do so without breaking the spirit.” So, that’s false. I have read and studied a ton of Protestant parenting information, as well as Catholic, and I think that they are pretty similar. I have never read anything about breaking one’s will, in either, although I did read a horse manual once. I was thinking of the tons of Scripture references there are about being born in Adam, and being born in sin, and another one that popped into mind was sins visiting to the third and fourth generations (Numbers 14:18.) So that means you have evil inside not only before your born, but before your parents are born. The reason I think this is so important is because I think if you do not believe what the Bible says about that, it is dangerously close to humanism. And we should also be very careful when we quote people.

    • Elizabeth wrote kind of what I was going to say, only with quotes because I’m too lazy :) I haven’t had time to watch the video either but I plan to. There is theological component in there that Elizabeth was alluding to, about the fact that Catholics do believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore have good innately in us, where as one of the things Luther struggled with was believing this and thinking that humans were utterly depraved without God’s saving grace. This is actually a pretty important theological difference/belief that comes into play maybe we talk about the innate goodness of babies/children (another place it comes into play is when we talk about whether or not natives on a desert island could be saved – strict Protestants will say absolutely no way no how, there is possibility for it using Catholic theology/logic/natural law). Anyway, don’t take my (extremely poorly written) take on it.
      Not to make it a theological debate, but from what you wrote I think that it makes a lot of sense!
      alison recently posted..New LeafMy Profile

      • I just touched on this in the comments below, but wanted to chime in – it’s definitely the glass half full/half empty part of Catholic vs. Protestant debate – whether we see human beings (not just children) as inherently good with the ability to choose evil/sinful behaviors or whether we see ourselves as inherently bad with the ability to learn to be good.
        Molly recently posted..The Hallow TimesMy Profile

      • This is definitely a side topic, but Alison touched on something I have always found to be a fascinating subject – the idea of whether or not natives on a desert island can be saved. I would certainly consider myself a strict Protestant, at least compared to the majority of people these days; obviously a major part of that is the belief that faith in Christ is the only way to Heaven. However, I also believe very firmly that God is a JUST God, and that He is outside of time, space, etc. So even though I do believe that faith in His Son is required to get into Heaven, I also know that God doesn’t confine Himself to our rules. Anyways, completely off the topic at hand, but again, something that I just find so, so interesting.

  2. The Bible very clearly states that “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). It doesn’t get much clearer than that. When Dr. Dobson says that infants are evil, he doesn’t mean that they are living Chuckie dolls, or that a baby is “bad” and needs to be punished. Rather, he is disagreeing with the “tabula rasa.” the theory of the blank slate. God created us as perfect beings, but when Adam sinned that perfection was lost. So, although children can and do make kind, unselfish decisions, I would argue that they do these things because they are being taught goodness by their parents. A child whose mother and father model the love of Christ in all things will almost certainly reflect those behaviors more consistently than a child whose parents are cruel and abusive. It’s not that children are particularly evil and rebellious; we all are, and always would be, if it were not for the redemption offered through Christ.

    • Totally agree. You put that very well.

    • While this will probably just end up being an argument of semantics, I think it’s one thing to say we have a inherently sinful nature (which I agree with) and another to say children, babies in particular, are “inherently evil”. One can discribed as our natural state which we were born to and the other is the actively choosing to do that which is immoral and harmful (dictionary definition of evil is immoral, injurious or harmful).

      Personally, and I know this is debateable, I think it can be possible to be guilty of sin without being an inherently evil person (which most people are) – think of the example of a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; he has committed a sin – stealing – but it is difficult to describe his action as “evil” particularly when compared to people who steal for much more malicious and selfserving reasons.

      I’ve heard from very conservative circles that a babies cries for food, sleep or comfort should be taken as part of their “evil behavior” and I just can’t swallow that – I can’t think a child, a baby in particular, using their limit means of communication and logic to gain that which is necessary for healthy human developement – food, sleep and comfort – is an active decision to be evil or manipulative.
      Molly Makes do recently posted..The Hallow TimesMy Profile

      • I think you’re right, that it is semantics. When I use the term “evil,” I mean in the Biblical sense of the word, our hearts are all desperately wicked, et cetera. To God, all sin is evil, whether it’s stealing or gossip or murder, and all sin is the same. So if we’re going to be completely honest, all sin, in God’s eyes, is immoral, injurious and harmful, and thus evil. That’s why we need Jesus. But you’re right; as humans our minds are unable to comprehend this fully, and so we “scale” sin. No one likes to be reminded of the fact that, in God’s eyes, that incident last week where you deliberately avoided telling the clerk that she missed ringing up a few items is the same as shooting someone. So when I use the term “inherently evil,” I am referring to the fact that babies are born with the full capability to sin once they reach the proper level of understanding, rather than being born perfect, and then a switch being flipped around two years old. But I absolutely agree with you that babies do not yet have the capability to act evilly. God created them to cry to express their needs, and to treat His system of babies’ communication methods as sinful, is just wrong. My heart breaks whenever I hear of a baby being left to cry it out; that is so not what God intended. So, I suppose I would say that babies are inherently evil (again, in the Biblical sense of the word, not in the popular sense), but absolutely not socially evil, in that they are not capable of making a sinful choice.

        • I think we’re in an agreement with the semantics. =D But, I think we do ourselves and our children a great disservice to focus on a sinful nature (and this might just be a case of seeing the glass half empty or half full) rather on the idea that while we’ve inherited sin, we were made to be good by God. I guess I’d rather focus on the positive aspect of our nature. Alison and Elizabeth touch on this in the other comment section – we are taught that instead of focusing on fighting the bad we should be striving for the good.

          Sadly I’ve heard to many people use the idea that we have the nature of sinfulness to justify the idea that children naturally have an evil character that must be thwarted. It might be, as you said the idea of scaling sins, but I cannot lump a child who gets frustrated and pushes their sibling in the same category as a mass murderer – one is giving in to a sinful behavior (mainly because of a still developing sense of logic and emotional control) and the other, fully aware of their behavior and it’s ramifications choose to embrace evil. However, I think this idea comes out of my Catholic mindset – we do have the “scaling of sins” in the idea of mortal vs. venial sins.

          I think it’s one thing to say we are made to be good, but have a proclivity towards sin/evil and that we can be taught to fight these impulses and another to say that we are inherently evil creatures who can only be taught goodness.
          Molly recently posted..The Hallow TimesMy Profile

          • Molly: I’ve been following this conversation with much interest, refraining from talking too much; but I just wanted to say that I particularly love the way you put that last sentence.

          • Pardon me if I don’t make much sense; I just ate an inordinate amount of my older daughter’s Halloween candy, and I really need a nap :) Last night was the first time my 10 month old ever slept through the night, but apparently it’s going to take me awhile to catch up. Anyways, I think that ultimately we are arguing two sides of the same coin, to a certain extent. I certainly believe that we are made in the image of God, and that that sets us apart from the rest of Creation in a powerful and amazing way. We are, after all, only a little lower than the angels. And we were made to be good; more than that – we were made to be perfect! But Adam sinned, and we fell. We still have God’s fingerprints all over us, though, and that is why even humans who utterly reject Christ are still able to be kind, gracious, unselfish, etc. I suppose the best way to sum up what I believe: just as Jesus was fully God AND fully man, I believe we are both fully created in the image of God AND fully sinful creatures. Not for long, though. Someday we will be restored to full glory. So I guess that’s why it doesn’t bother me to say that humans are inherently evil; because we were not always that way, and we will be perfect again. Our shame is His victory. But right now, in this life, there are too many passages in the Bible for me (believing as I do in the infallibility of Scripture) to ever believe that, if left to our own devices, we will do good (Our hearts are desperately wicked? All of our good works are as filthy rags?). There’s a reason Lord of the Flies resonates so strongly. So yes, I believe that we were created for good, and to do good. I just also believe that, for a small moment in the vastness of eternity, sin gets in the way. It’s a little hard to wrap my brain around at times, but God handles the Trinity just fine, so I assume He can handle this too :)

          • Beautiful words, Arliss. I think I basically agree with everything you say here. I agree that if left to our own devices, we cannot become good, though I do believe God built us with inborn impulses towards good (though sin usually inhibits its full expression) — as demonstrated by the infants and toddlers in the above-mentioned documentary who exhibited kindness and helpfulness.

          • Yeah this is definitely much deeper than semantics, but kind of at the core of the reformation. Interesting questions that a lot of people have thought about for quite a while!
            alison recently posted..New LeafMy Profile

          • I think we’ve successfully boiled away the semantics down to the theology and I think that’s a good place to stop (though I want to commend everyone for such a great discussion so far – so fair and levelheaded!). In fact, it’s given me the drive to read over our Catechisms’ sections on Sin and Human Nature!

            It is nice to know that there are our brothers and sisters on both sides (of the reformation I suppose) who don’t buy into these “conservative christian” (as these ideas often get billed) ideas of seeing children, particularly young children and babies, as creatures capable of choosing sinful and evil behaviors to spite and control their parents from the moment of their births.

            I might be stepping out on a limb here but it seems that even though we have differing ideas on the nature of man as to sinfulness, we see a child as a developing person whose ideas of right and wrong need to be shaped and molded while still young while not expecting perfectly good or perfectly horrible behavior at all times.
            Molly recently posted..The Hallow TimesMy Profile

          • I think that’s a very good summing up, Molly :)

  3. I can’t watch the video – I’m in America – and haven’t watched the summary link yet. I just wanted to write in to ask that you consider the blanketed boldness of one of the statements in your article. Yes, TTUAC and Babywise (along with countless others, I’m sure) came from so-called conservative evangelical Christians. And you did use the word “historically.” However, it bothers me that I, as a self-professed conservative, evangelical Christian, am, by your statement, being lumped in with others before me who see children as evil when that’s simply not the case. I look at my sweet, beautiful 15 month old daughter and see nothing but God’s goodness. I do believe, as others stated above, that we as humans are born into sin and with naturally sinful hearts, but I don’t like the insinuation that because I’m conservative and because I’m evangelical I will physical punish the evil out of my child. Is it possible your statement could be rewritten in a less potentially-inflammable manner? Perhaps by adding the word “some” along with your post-clarification of “historically?” Just my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

  4. Too many people with the name Katie on the intArwebz….

    Somehow this post didn’t make it into my inbox Tuesday and I missed all this fabulous discussion! I think Arliss put most of my thoughts into words too eloquently to justify my chiming in now. But it’s been good to read!

    We just don’t have any models of sinless babies in the Bible except for Jesus, and it doesn’t say much about what he did–that “no crying he makes” thing was made up by the songwriter. So much of our interpretation of infant behavior is based on perception. Think even of the one thing we do know that Jesus did as a kid–stay behind in Jerusalem after the feast. I’m pretty sure Mary and Joseph perceived that as sinful or evil behavior, because it panicked the heck out of them and caused them all sorts of extra work. But of course it wasn’t.

    I guess the point is that it’s as dangerous to attribute motivations and pass judgment on the actions of children and infants as it is to do so on the actions of adults–we’re all sinful, at all ages, but only God knows our hearts.

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge