Selfishness, Sinfulness Survival—A Guide to Knowing the Difference


Recently, I ran across a poll on Twitter that really opened my eyes to how many Christians view children in relation to sin and salvation. The poll went something like this: At what age in general do children knowingly and intentionally commit sin? Out of a poll of 298 people, the number one choice was between zero to 11-months-old. This choice won receiving 37% of the votes.

I felt some of the comments on the poll were equally as enlightening. Some suggested that children were sinful in the womb and others as young as six-months-old. While there were a wide variety of responses, I was concerned about how these thoughts affect what we think about small children and how we treat and discipline them.

As someone who has spent many years personally and professionally with children, I found this shocking and yet it gave me insight into why some parents tend to discipline their children in the manner they do. I understand some may relate their children’s behavior to their belief that we are born with a sin nature. I would like to share some thoughts based on my training and biblical understanding. I hope that even if you have a strong opinion on this topic you will at least glean some additional perspective on how childhood moral development happens. Understand I am not trying to replace a biblical view, but merely explaining how moral development works in relation to a child’s age and individual rate of brain growth and development.

While I was in school, we learned about the social, sexual, physical, and moral development of children. This is important for many reasons. A big reason is that we can measure individual kids against a general standard and see if they are behind, on track or ahead. It also helps us to know what to expect from a certain age group and how to best teach and help each person. It can help us build a better understanding of why certain events as someone was growing up affected them the way they did. In this particular article I would like to focus on moral development and the model that was set up by Kohlburg. I have posted a chart below with the general age and the development of morals to help illustrate what happens in each stage.

Why are his observations important when it comes to development and raising kids? Because, what if we are so busy seeing our children through our expectations and assumptions that we expect things we shouldn’t. Or, what if we discipline our kids thinking they are doing things willfully, with full knowledge of selfishness or sin, but they aren’t.

I have met many children, teens, and adults who suffered inappropriate discipline. I’ve been on mom groups with people asking how to handle their children in church or at home when they feel the child’s responses are inappropriate or even sinful. I have found that many of the responses from other parents are inappropriate developmentally.

Let’s talk about some specifics.

Let’s say your child is in the infant stage (under 1), some may view their behaviors as selfish, willful, or with intent to make someone else mad. Some parents at this stage may yell, instigate time out, spank, or use other forms of punishment to try to correct behaviors. However, an infant doesn’t know or understand right and wrong or cause and affect. So I believe, if I understand the poll, they can at this stage of development do things that are willfully sinful. They are egocentric and “selfish,” but this is because they depend 100% on others for food, milk, protection, and comfort. Therefore, they have learned how to get their needs met. This is not coming from a place of being sinfulness, but rather necessity.

Toddlers: This group can look you in the face and try to do the opposite of what you’re asking them to do. They often say no, mine, can be aggressive toward others, and test boundaries. Some would view this as the age in which “willful” sin comes into play. I would disagree. Let’s talk about development. These children have moved from complete dependence to starting to understand they can say no and that they can try to exert their will over others and test those in power over them. It’s essentially the opposite of the first stage. This begins to be the development of the conscience—when children begin to grasp a concept of self verses others. It’s a learning period. In my view, a small child’s disobedience is still not a willful sin. Their brains do not yet grasp the true concept of sin and they will not be capable of that for awhile. Since the goal of this stage is to begin to learn about how they exist apart from their caregiver, the stage of “no” and “mine” are not coming from a place of sin/selfishness but rather an exploration of exerting one’s own will apart from their caregiver. This is an age where they begin to learn through experience what is expected of them from others.

The next age, school age, is in my view where the true concept of right and wrong begins to set in with kids. While I don’t believe there is a set age that one can say a child “willfully sins,” I will say that during the school years kids begin to label themselves “good” or “bad” based on their behaviors. In other words, they begin to own their actions. They may still not fully understand the concept of sin but they are beginning to understand to learn to own their actions. However, one more thing to consider is that this age group is very black in white in their thinking and their motivation is toward what is socially acceptable. This may mean they are still incapable of realizing whether they believe something because someone has taught them or whether they believe it through their own reasoning. Therefore, to me, this may still be a gray area as far as whether sin is willful.

Teens: Ah yes, the age group that often tries on new ideas and rejects those that they have been taught. They begin to think through what they’ve been taught and develop a moral compass. In my view, unless their are developmental issues at this age, sin can be, and often is, willful. Without a doubt, teens are old enough to understand why what they choose is sinful and know that they are willfully disobeying. While they may not always be able to predict the outcome of their choices, they are able to sort through what they choose and why it is something that is viewed as wrong or sinful.

I hope that in learning a little bit about the stages of moral development I have challenged you to consider what actions by children are willful sin versus a natural part of the learning process. I would like to leave you with one final example.

Have you ever considered that Adam and Eve were naked and it wasn’t a sin? Why then did they become ashamed after eating the fruit? It’s because they received the knowledge that they were naked and when they realized this, it changed how they felt about being naked. So was it a sin before they were aware of it? The answer is no. There was no sin until they became knowledgeable about what sin was. I personally believe this concept still applies today. I also believe the Bible is clear on whether children are saved or not. Matthew 18:3 tells us to become as little children or we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. Why does it say this? It says it because little children are innocent. They are unaware of sin or the ability to realize what the consequences of sin are.

Thank you for reading my post. I hope that I have opened your eyes to a different view to consider when you see your kids doing things that need correction. As always, I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rachael Heib
Comments 1
  1. “So was it a sin before they were aware of it? The answer is no. There was no sin until they became knowledgeable about what sin was.”

    I disagree. There is sin when they rebelled against God for doing what God say don’t do, which is eat the fruit. It’s not that because they are knowledgeable about good and evil, then there is sin. Big significant here. Be careful. Sin is rebelling against God, and in other hand, Knowledgeable about good and evil is about moral maturity and ability to discern good and evil. If God said it’s okay to eat the fruit, then it’s just Adam being sinless and with ability to discern good and evil. So, here we are sinful in nature, throughout our generation from Adam, that means that sin is in our blood and nature, our nature is naturally rebelling against God, whether we actively are or not. Discernment of good and evil is another story.

    So, since babies are born in sinful nature (we can’t deny that theologically), that means they naturally will do what’s wrong even if they don’t realize it, and they are able to discern between good and evil, but of course with big limitation because of their language, worldly experience, and so on.

    Yes, we can see that some babies are good and well behaved, some babies did worse. That still doesn’t deny the fact that all are sinful. I agree completely that we shouldn’t be thinking they are doing bad things willfully, with full knowledge of selfishness or sin; but whether they are doing it willfully or not, they probably know in slightest that it might be wrong (and they just don’t care), and the sin nature fact still stands. I would say, we are disobedient because we are in nature sinful, just like our forefathers. Disobedience is in our nature. In fact, when we rebel against God, we are basically being disobedient to God. Which here, we and our children reflects the same thing. “Their brains do not yet grasp the true concept of sin”, this one I agree, but with additional note, they don’t grasp the literally concept of sin, but in nature they have it.

    So, that requires more complex solution than just “oh they aren’t able to discern” or “they only know sin when they know”. In this world, the complexity of what is wrong and right always changing due to different environment, but the original nature of good and wrong is always there, we would at least slightest know that it’s wrong when we have no knowledge about it.

    So, in application wise, I agree, we shouldn’t be thinking they are doing bad things willfully, with full knowledge of selfishness or sin. We should understand that they are sinful in nature just like we are (without additional knowledge), but they still need milk and guardianship to able fully discern the complex right and wrong that has developed on earth. We shouldn’t discount when they do wrong things, and we need to discipline them. Just like God discipline us, Father discipline the son. Disobedience is natural because we are all sinful. Disobedience is also unnatural because God intends us to be obedient. What the child see and learn when they are young, will reflect on what they believe or do when they are older. If we don’t correct them, they will naturally think it’s right and okay to do so. That means that we are not disciplining our child, and we are not doing our job as a God fearing Christian parents.

    (Just in case, if anyone else) Plus, don’t take discipline as a bad thing. Discipline does not mean punishment (but it can be punishment). I understand that in the western culture, disciplining is always seen in a bad light, it is hurtful and can bring more rebellious nature of the child. But, all over in the Bible, disciplining is an act of love. It teaches, corrects, rebukes, humbles, builds up, and support. The current secular culture idea is that if you discipline your kids, you’re hurting or abusing them. No wonder, each generation in general are getting worse, and becoming like a strawberry generation. Easily bruised. Wants quick result or pleasure. Overly protected. For the babies, I’m not saying we should harshly discipline them, but there would be a need for small amount of discipline and no. And no, babies being annoying is not them being sinful. Disobedience or selfishness are not particularly not sin, but can be traced to sinful nature.

    I agree that some parents tend to discipline their children in the manner they do and they think it’s correct from their understanding of sin, which are wrong. That mainly because they don’t understand the nature of sin properly.

    So, what’s natural then? We are naturally sinful, in our POV, it’s natural. Are we gonna harshly punish our kids for doing wrong things? Yes and no, that just like what you said, we have to discern what’s willfully and what’s natural learning. The main key is to discipline properly. Because it teaches, corrects, rebukes, humbles, builds up, and support.

    You got very good points and argument, but I have to point out what you’re wrong about nature of sin, how it come into the wrong, and tree of good and evil. That itself can change the whole theologically application and discernment. Plus, it’s dangerous to say that, because when a not really well versed Christians read this, they will get wrong idea and understanding about sin, and what’s worse is they will teach people wrong teaching. Please be careful with God’s scripture.

    I’m sorry I got carried away with explaining.

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