“Self-worth is everything to a child!”
She said it with finality, her eyes intense with passion. “Telling kids they are bad only causes emotional instability they aren’t ready to handle. I’ve seen it result in terrible things . . . ” She trailed off, but her penetrating look did not.
She was the older, experienced mom; I was young and rocking my firstborn. Her warning intimidated me, but it left me with this tension—where does self-worth fit in a world of sin? If every human is born in sin, then tiny humans are no different. Toddlers are sinners, too. How does a parent address sin in a child’s life while tiptoeing around their self-esteem?
Blessings vs. Consequences
This tension was accidentally resolved for me a few years later through a simple catechism. Instead of expressing my own disappointment in my son’s sin, personally labeling him “bad,” I worked to communicate God’s response to his sin. I would ask, “What does obedience bring?” and he would answer, “Blessings.” “What does disobedience bring?” “Consequences.”
I admit blessings and consequences didn’t teach morality at first. At best they taught self-control; at worst they worked like a bribe. What they did communicate was a biblical framework for understanding life—the very framework God teaches us. Jesus often uses the promise of heavenly blessings and the threat of eternal consequences as motivation to follow him, the same pattern that had marked God’s relationship with the Israelites. When Israel obeys, the nation is blessed. When they disobey, God imposes consequences.
The repeated catechism—obedience brings blessings and disobedience brings consequences—started as a way to explain to my boy why he was receiving discipline or when he could expect blessings. What I didn’t realize until much later was the depth at which it would help him understand sin and forgiveness from an early age. The catechism exposed both the seriousness of wrongdoing and also the relational blessing born from obedience, and this led naturally into many gospel conversations. Experiencing earthly consequences helped my son grasp eternal consequences. Knowing God blesses obedience gave depth to Jesus’s obedience. My son’s own eternal consequence, given to Jesus. Jesus’s earned blessing, bestowed on him.
I vividly remember my 4-year-old trying to work out the effects of sin. There were a few weeks when every day he’d say, “Mom, can we talk about sin?” Sin is disobedience, he’d tell me, like when you say you washed your hands after you went potty, but you really didn’t. He’d explain the consequence for sin is death, but Jesus took the consequence. At this point, I’d try to make the conversation personal.
“Do you want Jesus to take your consequence?”
“I think so.”
“If you ask Jesus to take your consequences, you’re asking him to be your boss. You’re asking him to tell you what’s right and wrong.”
“I don’t want to. I get tired of asking about that.”
For weeks, that’s how every conversation ended. He wasn’t interested in Jesus’s lordship in his life. Though small, chubby-cheeked, and dressed like Super Mario, he understood that sin was departure from God’s authority. The more this conversation happened, the more I realized his relational problem with Jesus was his beloved autonomy. And as small as he was, even he knew this.
This conversation wasn’t born out of my son’s sense of self-worth; it was a direct result of grappling with his badness. He was faced with a serious problem. He knew about the reality of sin and believed in the consequence of his disobedience. He even knew the cure for sin was a relationship with Jesus. But he didn’t know how to accept this cure while still loving his sin. The weight of the dilemma pressed on him, so he worked through it, having this same conversation with me as many times as it occurred to him.
Then one day, the end of the conversation changed. There was no drama, no emotional breakthrough. He just changed his mind about what he wanted and gave up the freedom to declare what was right in his own eyes. Instead of replying, “I don’t want to ask God about right and wrong,” he simply said, “Jesus, I’m sorry for my sin. Will you please take my consequence away? Will you be my boss?”
It’s not cruel to tell children they’re sinners. Sin is real, destroying lives and devouring souls. This isn’t different in the life of a child. What’s cruel is letting them live in their sin unaware. The weight of my son’s sin drove him to look for an answer—a weight he couldn’t have felt without knowing the inherent badness of his sin, of his choices, and ultimately of his own heart.
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret,” Paul observes, “whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). My son had to know he was bad, and know the infinite consequence of his badness. He had to feel crushed under that reality until he was willing to say, “I can’t fix this. I need Jesus to help.”
And by God’s grace, that’s exactly what he said.