How Not to Raise a Barbarian

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Two hundred years ago, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advanced a theory that humans are born naturally good, but corrupted by society.

I thought of Rousseau's theory recently. A colleague told me she left her two pre-teen sons at home alone while she went shopping. Returning an hour later, she found a number of odd marks on the walls. It turned out that her sons, in the midst of a fight, had begun throwing kitchen knives at each other. Fortunately, they were bad shots, but that's scary.

There is no way you could convince this mom that children are born good. Would that all parents had such wisdom. As Christian dad Tony Woodlief writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Some mothers and fathers stubbornly cling to the utopian beliefs of their childless years"—even as their own kids give them plenty of reason to change their minds.

Woodlief—as the father of four boys—has plenty of firsthand evidence that kids are born as sinners. As he puts it, "Nobody who's stood between a toddler and the last cookie should still harbor a belief in the inherent virtue of mankind. And an afternoon at the playground," he declares, "is apt to make one toss out the idealist Rousseau"—that man is a compassionate and sensible being—in favor of the more realistic view and the Christian understanding of the Fall.

Woodlief cites Thomas Sowell, who wrote in his book A Conflict of Visions: "Each new generation born is, in effect, an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."

Sowell offers a contrast between two visions fighting for dominance: the "unconstrained vision" of utopians, who believe they can radically improve mankind, and the "constrained vision" of realists—people who know that man is inherently selfish and cannot be reshaped by government into a better brand of human. Government should instead protect institutions like families "that channel our inherent selfishness into productive behavior," so says Woodlief.

Woodlief is right on. As Aristotle argued, character cannot be taught, it can only be learned—and it is best learned in the communities of the family and the Church, where children can see and experience virtue. That is why the war that is being waged against the family is so serious. If we end up destroying the family unit, we will end up destroying civilization itself. In my 31 years at Prison Fellowship, I have seen firsthand the fruits of broken families—prisons filled with young men and women who had no father, no family. They are like feral children without a knowledge of right and wrong.

We have also seen in our InnerChange Freedom Initiative what healthy community can mean: There, prisoners bond together as family. They are embraced by local churches, and they are part of a community in which virtue is experienced and practiced. That is why the men who graduate from the program have dramatically reduced recidivism rates.

Well, what can we do to keep the little barbarians from becoming big ones? Pray for, promote, and protect the family! And look around your church: See whether the single parents are getting the support and help they deserve. There are so many dysfunctional families today that our church communities have to act as the family writ large—where virtue and Christian character can be touched, tasted, and learned.

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From BreakPoint®, September 20, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship