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July 19, 2019

Once upon a time there was an Italian-made puppet who, through a series of interesting events and circumstances, came to life.  He was given a significant advantage in this process in the form of a cricket named Jimminy (or Jiminy, if you prefer the alternate spelling).  Jimminy was an exceedingly wise and discerning cricket.  His main job was to urge the boy-who-used-to-be-a-puppet to make good choices.  The majority of his time and energy was in trying to steer this former puppet away from bad decisions.  Unfortunately, his advice and urgings weren’t followed often enough, to the harm of the puppet-boy.

If you’re an oldster, you know I’m talking about Pinocchio.  Disney’s animated version of this fable is still available on those nearly-antiquated things called DVDs, so if you haven’t seen it, you could probably find it in the $5 bin at Walmart or buy it from somebody on eBay.  It’s a colorful morality play, actually.  A story about learning to listen to one’s conscience.  It’s not biblical, and it’s not even psychologically accurate in every detail, but it’s an entertaining story worth watching, even with all it’s disconnects from reality.

Aside from the parts of the story where Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie, my favorite part is Jimminy Cricket.  That small voice of reason that constantly tries to guide Pinocchio away from harmful choices and toward beneficial ones.  He doesn’t force Pinocchio to do anything.  He just speaks his suggestions.  And if Pinocchio would have listened, he would have had far less trouble in his journey toward full boyhood.

One of the famous lines from this animated movie is, “Always let your conscience be your guide.”  This is good advice.  Well, as long as your conscience has been educated to offer good advice.  Because how your conscience is educated makes all the difference here.  And that’s what I want to think about in this blog.

I believe all of us have been given a conscience as a gift from God.  There is a part of us – a spiritual part of us – that has a sense of what’s basically right and what’s basically wrong.  But from the moment the physiology of our brain develops to allow reasoning, our conscience is being educated.  Culture and the influence of significant people in your life helped you educate your conscience.  There’s a ton that goes into this, but all I want to suggest here is that we educate our conscience, and, as parents and grandparents (and teachers, coaches, etc.), we educate the consciences of the children under our care and influence.

One of the great stewardships God has given us is to thoughtfully contribute to the education of our young charges.  For Christians, we are bound to the standards of Scripture for the boundaries of conscience.  The fundamental right and wrong are clear in the Bible, even though there are many specific cases where right and wrong must be interpreted from the fundamentals we have there.  I’m talking about basic morality here.  You can make it theology if you want to, but it’s still basic morality that must be taught and caught.  There are many ways and styles of doing this.  But whether you and I believe we’re teaching and modeling it or not, we are.  We can’t not teach it.

So this job of educating children’s consciences is big.  Bigger than most people know or want to know.

I believe there are three pieces to this educational process.  There’s What, Why and How.  In the form of three Questions, really.  What is right?  Why is it right?  And How do I act because of that?

How you ask and answer these three questions requires finesse.  Don’t try to explain the philosophical and theological reasons for obedience to a 3 year old.  They won’t get it.  Even a very intuitive kid probably won’t get that until they get out of the concrete stage and develop some ability to think abstractly.  Trying to explain the Why to a child in the concrete stage is, well, as a friend once told me, like trying to teach a pig to sing the National Anthem.  If the pig ever learns it, which it won’t, when it sings it, it will be just awful.  So don’t waste your time and energy.

For a kid in the concrete stage, “Because I said so,” is most often the best answer.  Even when they tell you it’s not a good enough one.  Sometimes, “Because that’s what Jesus told us,” is the right answer.  But be careful not to make Jesus the scapegoat for what your preferences are.  In other words, if Jesus didn’t say it, don’t say He did.

Kids can get the What and the How in the concrete stage, though, and that’s where you should focus your energy and effort when they’re young.

Most developmental psychologist believe a child doesn’t move out of the concrete stage of thinking until about age 12.  By the time a kid is ready to go to middle school, they’re usually ready to being wading in the shallow end of the abstract thinking pool.  That’s when you begin engaging with them about the deeper philosophical and theological aspects of the Why.  Be advised, though, that you’d better be ready to reason and think your way through this, because as kids move more deeply into the abstract stage, they’ll be able to tie you in knots if you’re not on your toes.

And this brings me to the last thing I’ll say about a topic that there are entire books about: don’t try to educate your kids’ consciences before you educate your own.  Look into the mirror of God’s design, the Bible, and into your own life and see the gaps that are there.  You don’t have to be perfect, thank God.  None of us can.  But to be unaware, or worse yet, to not care that you’re unaware of your gaps is just plane wrong.  Partner with God and His grace, and shape your conscience according to His design.  Then don’t grow weary in the often difficult work of educating your kids’ consciences.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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