Image by joaquin uy from Seattle (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons
I read a blog post by an adoptive mother that upset me deeply a while ago. I've been trying to let it go but I keep coming back to think about it. She talks about her six year old child coming to “understand his own sinfulness” in the context of his questions about how he came to be adopted and what his life might have been like had he grown up in Thailand. She responded to my incredulity with the following:
If you struggle to embrace the fact that all men are sinful from birth, consider children you may know. I’m not sure if you are a parent or not but I’d venture to say you’ve experienced this…children are not taught to be sinful. We never taught our children to be selfish, or to lie or to take something that didn’t belong to them or to be disrespectful, etc. They are born ready to do those things because they have a sin nature. A one year old manifests a sin nature, just spend time with one and you will see it firsthand. It’s innate.
In other words, sin does not require action or even intention in her eyes; it is humanity’s default state… which does beg the question why we’re supposed to ask forgiveness for it. Perhaps she also asks her children to apologise to her daily for their eye-colour. It also, snarkiness aside, makes me wonder what she believes Jesus died for, if it wasn’t our sins.
Since I happen to be rather fond of babies and toddlers, and have yet to meet one I didn’t believe to be of intrinsic worth, I thought I might outline what science has to say about babies and intrinsic morality. Spoiler alert! Babies are born full of awesome. Although these findings come from numeous individual studies, I read about all of them in one book: Alison Gopnik's fabulous The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.I'm not referencing them each individually.
Gopnik describes an absolutely charming study in which fourteen to eighteen month olds were shown two bowls, one containing goldfish crackers and the other broccoli. An experimenter ate some crackers and acted disgusted, then ate some broccoli and acted delighted. This reaction startled the babies; I mean, obviously crackers are nicer than broccoli! However, when the researcher reached out her hand and asked "Can you give me some?" the eighteen month olds gave the researcher the broccoli. Although it seemed crazy to them, they did what they thought would make the other person happy. The fourteen month olds tried to encourage the researcher to try the crackers instead.
In an experiment to determine the extend of children's ability to analyse data children were asked which animal a toy bunny was afraid of. First a zebra was introduced, and the bunny shook with fear. Then an elephant visited, and the bunny welcomed him. Finally the elephant and zebra visited together, and again the bunny shook with fear. Four year olds were not only able to deduce that the zebra was frightening the bunny but wanted to remove the zebra from the bunny's basket: "the sympathetic preschoolers were quite anxious to do so- they practically rushed in to evict the scary animal".
Gopnik sums up the morality of babies thus:
Other studies also show that these young children are genuinely altruistic. In one striking recent series of studies Felix Warneken showed the even fourteen-month-olds will try hard to help someone else. If they see an experimenter straining for a pen that is out of reach, for example, they will obligingly help him get it. In fact, they will toddle all the way across the room and clamber over a couple of cushions to get there to help. They will not only get upset when they see someone in pain, they will also try to help, petting and kissing and trying to make it better.I see a lot of bad people in this world. I see a lot of bad parents. I don't see a single bad baby. I will not tell my son that losing his birth family was ordained by God before the foundation of the earth or was in answer to my prayers for a child. And I sure as hell will not tell my son that he was born stained and broken and cruel.
Such children not only act in a genuinely moral way, they also make genuinely moral judgements. In a groundbreaking study, Judith Smetana presented children as young as two and a half with simple, everyday scenarios. In some of the stories children broke a preschool rule- they didn't put their clothes in the cubby or they talked at naptime. In others, they caused real physical or psychological harm to another child, by hitting, teasing or stealing a snack. Smetana asked the children how bad the transgressions were, and whether they deserved punishment. But, most important, she asked whether the actions would be OK if the rules were different or if they took place at a school with different rules. Would it be OK to talk at naptime if the teachers all said so? Would it be OK to hit another child if the teachers all said so?
Even the youngest children differentiated between rules and harm. Children thought that breaking rules and causing harm were both bad, but causing harm was a lot worse. They also said that the rules could be changed or might not apply at a different school, but they insisted that causing harm would always be wrong, no matter what the rules said or where you were.
Poignantly, even abused children thought that hurting someone was intrinsically wrong. These children had seen their own parents cause harm, but they knew how much it hurt, and thought it was wrong.
Pages 210 to 212
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