What Would Jesus Do? – A Discussion Between A Six-Year Old and Her Four-Year Old Sister

As a kind of a follow up to my previous post on the family, I wanted to share a story about our children that occurred yesterday.

First, a little background:

A few years back, the Marriage and Family class at our LDS church was taught by sister Williams, who is a professional psychiatrist working with young, recently married couples at BYU. She had lots of wonderful insights, both as a marriage dynamics professional and a gospel instructor, that have stuck with me ever since.

Among the many topics she presented, one discussed studies that indicated that some parents were enforcing the virtue of “sharing” upon their children so much that their children were growing up with a deficient, warped, or even nonexistent concept of personal property. As a result, these children who lacked a sense of property were less likely to respect the property of others and more likely to steal or vandalize.

My own parents had been careful about how much we were forced to “share” our toys.

With our own children, we have tried to teach that their belongings really do belong to them, and that, while sharing is the right thing to do, we will not force them to share against their will. After all, what virtue is there in sharing unless you have the choice not to share? And if no property is ever your own to withhold, then what beneficence is there in giving?

With that, I want to recount a funny exchange between our six-year old daughter, B., and our four-year old daughter, E.:

Yesterday afternoon, I came upon the two of them arguing.

“What are you fighting about?” I asked.

“E. said that I can only use her nail polish if I let her put it on me!” B. complained.

(Despite my best intentions, our young girls somehow own their own nail polish. Heavy Sigh.)

“It’s mine, ” said E., ” I can do what ever I want with it.”

“It is hers, ” said I, “It would be nice of her to share it, but she can choose not to. Instead of getting angry, B., why don’t you try to convince her that she should should share it. Try to give her some good reasons why she should let you use it.”

“When I share my things with you, I don’t make you use them the way I want to,” said B. thoughtfully.

“This is just the way that I am made!” retorted E.

“You can choose how you want to be, E.” I encouraged, a little alarmed that our four-year old was already espousing determinism to defend her desire not to do something!

“If you wont let me put your polish on, then I’m not going to share with you anymore,” B. said calmly, falling back on a sense of justice.

“That would be a natural thing to do, and would be fair for you to do that,” I told B. “But Jesus taught us that we should be kind to people even when they are unkind to us.”

B. thought for a moment and said, “E., I will still share my things with you, even though you wont share with me.” She wanted to do what was Christian, but at the same time it was obvious that she was hoping that the show of charity would prompt her sister to respond in kind.

But her hopes were frustrated. E. obstinately refused to modify her position (after all, she is four).

The conversation shifted briefly to another topic. B. was talking about how, like air, we can’t see Jesus but He exists. Then a new approach occurred to her:

“E., you believe in Jesus don’t you?” probed B.

“Yes,” E. responded definitively.

“Well if Jesus was you, would He let me use the nail polish?” B. asked. She knew she had her.

(I made a mental note to remember to someday teach B. how to properly use the subjunctive.)

Without even a moment’s hesitation, E. responded:

“Boys don’t have nail polish!”

I laughed at the brilliant rejoinder! B. tried to rephrase her argument, but it was too late. And moments later that topic had passed as their attention moved on to other toys (partially due to my delighted laughter).

I love my kids!

There is a balance to be stricken between the freedom to choose and the extent to which morality must be enforced. The argument about where the fulcrum of that balance should lie is ongoing from the scope of the individual family all the way up to national and international law.

In one of my favorite essays of all time, Areopagitica , John Milton argued:

If every action, which is good or evil in man at ripe years, were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be then due to well-doing, what gramercy to be sober, just, or continent? Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress; foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?
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They are not skillful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; … Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousness. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not hither so; such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point. Suppose we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike.

We punish the thief, burglar, and vandal. Some would also force the miser to mete out his hoard and the greedy to give alms. All choices have consequences, but some consequences should be administered by government, and others happen naturally without the imposition of authority.

How we decide which is which is a complicated question. We return to the original assertion of sister Williams and see that, as is not uncommon in the world, the formation of morality is a complex, interconnected feedback loop; We must be ever careful that by enforcing one aspect of morality that is best left to choice and consequence we do not inadvertently loosen the strictures on another aspect.

Ideally we should be encouraging children to build moral character from which moral behavior can flow, rather than to produce superficial moral behavior that will disappear as soon as the constraint of supervision is removed. Unless our children have real choices with real consequences, that cannot happen.

To do that we need the help of God, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the atonement of Jesus Christ.

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