Are kids “good inside”? You may not think the answer to this question matters, but as a Christian parent, how you answer this question is foundational. It will impact how you conceptualize misbehavior and how you parent your kids. Underneath it all, this question is actually a theological one. When we ask, “Are kids good inside?” what we really want to know is: “Are kids sinful?”
I want to explore this issue through the lens of the totality of Scripture and how we can use the information from this question to inform our parenting. But first, a little context.
What do most people believe about being good inside?
One study found that almost 70% of Americans believe that people are basically good.
This is a prominent presupposition among popular secular parenting platforms. They assert that what parents perceive as “bad” behavior is simply immature, unskilled ways of communicating needs and desires. They believe that all misbehavior has underlying good intentions and we need to work with our kids from the idea that they are “good inside.”
This presupposition has leaked into the Christian parenting community as well. Some assert that we cannot assume misbehavior is intentional because young children are innocent and do not know right from wrong. Some have even used Scripture out of context to support this claim.
It’s interesting that the secular scientific community does not share this idea that young children cannot tell right from wrong. In fact, one secular scientific study found that babies as young as 3 months have what is referred to as a “moral compass,” preferring pro-social behaviors over aggressive or hindering behaviors. They concluded that people seem to be hard-wired for a moral sense of good and evil. Secular scientists attribute this phenomenon to biological evolution.
The Bible reveals the true reason.
What does the Bible say about being good inside?
We know from Scripture that we are made in God’s image:
We also know that everyone from Adam and Eve on were born tainted with the stain of sin:
Psalm 14:1-3 (quoted in Romans 3:10)
So, if we look at it this way, we can see that we are both good AND bad inside. Even unbelievers have good inside them in that they too were created in God’s image. To deny our goodness, is to deny ourselves as image bearers of God. And to deny our sinfulness is to deny the work of Christ on the cross.
Once we are saved, Jesus becomes our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30) and it is because of this that God proclaims us holy and without fault in His eyes (Ephesians 1:4). We still carry the stain of sin and struggle with it, but it is no longer counted against us (2 Corinthians 5:19). Praise be to God.
This dialectic is exactly what Paul wrestled with in Romans 7. We are both good and bad inside.
Are we asking the right question?
But maybe it isn’t about the “goodness” or “badness” inside of us. Maybe we need to look at it from a “fruit” perspective, like Jesus did.
In Luke 6: 43-45 Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Our insides are both good (image of God) and bad (tainted by sin). Out of this root, comes our behaviors. When we look around, we can see that all people can do good, bad, and even neutral behaviors.
Going for a walk outside is a neutral behavior. Punching your brother is a bad behavior. Giving a neighbor a meal is a good behavior.
When we put aside the assumption that all people are good inside, we can see clearly that people are capable of a variety of behaviors. The fruit often reveals what is going on inside the heart.
For kids, who are in the process of maturation and learning, this can be a bit more complicated and requires careful thought and consideration. Let’s take a look at that next.
How does this information impact our parenting?
We know from Proverbs 22:6 and Ephesians 6:4 that we are to train and discipline our children. Children may have an innate sense of right and wrong when it comes to human interactions, but they require training and discipline that are context specific to help them flesh that out. When we are faced with misbehavior, it is our responsibility, as Christian parents, to don our detective hats and search out the underlying root of the behavior.
There are three elements to consider when children misbehave: their head, their environment and their heart.
Consider their knowledge base
First of all, it is important to remember that children are not born knowing it is not okay to throw toys. This is a context dependent behavior. They are wired to explore and experiment. That is how they learn and create a framework for understanding the world. Exploratory behaviors, accidents and experimentation with their physical environment is what they do.
It is a parent’s job to create the structure through rules, re-directions, and reminders. We look for signs of comprehension and understanding, taking into consideration neurological, biological and developmental issues that may hamper the acquisition of information and an understanding of expectations. These behaviors do not have a sin basis and do not reveal a deeper issue at work.
Consider the environment
Secondly, children may misbehave due to a difficulty within their environment. Children who are overwhelmed sensorially will have a behavioral response. Children who feel threatened or unsafe will also have a behavioral response. Any misbehavior with an environmental root is best addressed with empathy, understanding, accommodations, increased safety measures. These behaviors are also not rooted in sin.
Consider the heart
Finally, we need to consider that there are times when children will misbehave due to their sin nature. This is where Christian parenting parts ways with secular approaches. A hardened heart is sometimes at the root of a misbehavior. It takes discernment to uncover the truth. One way is through humility and the regular practice of confession. If we can remove the planks from our own eyes, we will be better able to see the sin at work in our children and it will allow us to teach and correct in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).
Parenting the heart is important work as it lays the ground work for the truth of the gospel and infuses our children with a biblical worldview.
If you want to learn more about how you can parent your child’s heart, check out these posts:
In conclusion, if I had to answer the question posed in the title of this post: Are kids good inside? I would say yes…and no. We are both good and sinful. And we can display a variety of behaviors that can emerge from our internal heart condition. The presupposition that all kids are good inside is problematic, not just because it’s not biblical. But because it robs us from the opportunity to help our kids see the condition of their heart and then invite God in to heal and redeem.
As Christian parents, this is how we disciple through discipline.